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Six killer plants (that sound like they come from science fiction or fantasy but exist in real life)

Six killer plants (that sound like they come from science fiction or fantasy but exist in real life)
Manchineel Tree
Warning sign about the Manchineel tree

Because nature, it isn’t all daisy-chains and bumblebees . . .

Let M. R. Carey, author of the Rampart Trilogy – which is set in a strange future world, filled with deadly plant life – school you on some real life killer plants (that sound like they come from science fiction or fantasy but exist IN REAL LIFE).


When thinking about terrifying types of plant life that exist in the real world, the manchineel tree is a top candidate. Its sap can scald your skin, and you don’t even have to touch it to get that effect. If you shelter under it in a shower, which you might well do because of its broad, sheltering leaves, the sap mixes with the rain water and you find you’re basically showering in acid. Oh, and it bears lethally poisonous fruit, too. Yay!


Giant Hogweed
London England / UK – July 20th 2019: Giant hogweed warning danger sign in public park


Giant hogweed HAS to be in the mix. Its sap is full of chemicals called furanocoumarins that are massively toxic. One of the many things they can do is to remove all your skin’s natural protection against sunlight – so basically you just start to burn – quickly and agonisingly – as soon as you’re out in the sun. The chemicals can also affect the hormones in your liver and gut so you can die of an overdose of any medication you’re taking because your ability to metabolise it changes without warning.


Water Hemlock
Poisonous plants Lithograph, published in 1897.


We should probably include one species that’s just straight-out poisonous if ingested, and one of my favourites is Cicuta, the water hemlock, also known (charmingly) as death-of-man. There are four species, one of which apparently looks a whole lot like parsnip. Only where parsnip livens up a roast dinner, water hemlock gives you a lethal dose of a natural neurotoxin called cicutoxin, which makes every muscle in your body (including your heart) go into spasm and can kill you in a matter of minutes.




One of the sneakiest and nastiest killer plants is white snakeweed. It grows in pastures, looks perfectly harmless and is chock full of poisons called tremetols. If a cow eats snakeweed the cow will sicken but it won’t die. The real trouble starts when you milk the cow and drink the milk. Snakeweed is only found in the New World, so European settlers in the Americas had no idea what they were dealing with. Whole families would be wiped out by tremetol poisoning without the source being detected. Then a new family would move onto the same land and the same thing would happen. It’s estimated that snakeweed poisoning killed thousands of people during the period of westward expansion in the USA.


Widow Maker


I’d also make room for the widowmaker gum tree or giant eucalypt, which kills people in a more direct and spectacular way. Its heavy branches often break off from the parent trunk and plummet down out of the forest canopy, crushing anyone who’s unlucky enough to be underneath.


Strangler Fig
Pantanal Strangler Fig in Mato Grosso State, Brazil


The strangler fig – even though it only kills other trees, it does it in a macabre and fascinating way, growing AROUND them and cutting off their access to light and water until they die and rot, leaving the fig tree standing alone in the shape of a massive, hollow cage.

For more killer plants (fictionalised this time), pick-up M. R. Carey’s Rampart Trilogy: