Poisonous Plants: Red Squill

Humans have been at war with rats since time immemorial. Ridding ourselves of their nuisance behavior is increasingly unlikely, and in fact, some scientists believe that, following human extinction, rats will be poised to take our place as the most dominant species on earth. Despite being thwarted repeatedly, we make tireless attempts to control rat populations. One major weapon in our arsenal is poison, and one of the most popular rat poisons was derived from a plant with a formidable bulb.

Urginea maritima (known synonymously as Drimia maritima, among other Latin names) is a geophyte native to the Mediterranean Basin, where it survives the hot, dry summer months by going dormant, waiting things out underground. Growth occurs in the cooler months, its bulb expanding annually before it finally flowers late one year after reaching at least 6 years old. Its flower stalk rises to as tall as 2 meters, extending heavenward from a bulb that can weigh as much as a kilogram. Its inflorescence is long, narrow, and loaded with small flowers that are generally white, but sometimes pink or red.

The oversized bulb of Urginea maritima — via wikimedia commons

Urginea maritima is commonly known as red squill or white squill (and sometimes simply, squill). Other common names include sea onion, sea squill, and giant squill. It is related the squill referred to in the Harry Potter universe, which is known botanically as Scilla. However, plants in the genus Scilla are much more dimunutive and generally flower in the spring rather than the fall. Like red squill, Scilla species are known to be poisonous; however, they don’t have the reputation for producing deadly rat poison that red squill does.

Like so many poisonous plants, red squill has a long history of being used medicinally to treat all sorts of ailments. As with any folk remedy or natural medicine, a doctor should be consulted before attempting to treat oneself or others. A 1995 report tells of a woman who ate red squill bulbs to treat her arthritic pain. She exhibited symptoms characteristic of ingesting cardiac glycosides – the toxic compound found in red squill – including nausea, vomiting, and seizures. She died 30 hours after eating the bulbs.

red squill (Urginea maritima) — via wikimedia commons

Toxic compounds are found throughout the plant, but are particularly concentrated in the bulb (especially its core) and the roots. Toxicity is at its highest during summer dormancy and when the plant is flowering and fruiting. The compound used to poison rats is called scilliroside. Bulbs are harvested in the summer, chopped up, and dried. The chips are then ground down to a powder and added to rat bait. Results are highly variable, so to increase its effectiveness, a concentrate can be made by isolating the toxic compound using solvents.

Red squill was introduced to southern California in the 1940’s as a potential agricultural crop. The region’s Mediterranean climate and the plant’s drought tolerance made it ideal for the area. The bulbs can be grown for manufacturing rat poison, and the flowers harvested for the cut flower industry. Breeding efforts have been made to produce highly toxic varieties of red squill for rat poison production.

the flowers of red squill (Urginea maritima) — via wikimedia commons

Around the time red squill was being evaluated as an agricultural crop, studies were done not only on its toxicity to rats, but to other animals as well. A 1949 article details trials of a red squill derived poison called Silmurine. It was fed to rats as well as a selection of farm animals.  Results of the study where “not wholly satisfactory” when it came to poisoning rats. Silmurine was less effective on Rattus rattus than it was on Rattus norvegicus. Thankfully, however, it was found to be relatively safe for the domestic animals it was administered to. Most puked it up or avoided it. Two humans accidentally became part of the study when they inadvertently inhaled the poison powder. Ten hours later they experienced headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, “followed by lethargy and loss of appetite,” but “no prolonged effects.”

Vomiting is key. Ingesting scilliroside induces vomiting, which helps expel the poison. However, rodents can’t vomit (surprisingly), which is why the poison is generally effective on them.

Today, squill is available as an ornamental plant for the adventurous gardener. For more about that, check out this video featuring a squill farmer:

More Poisonous Plants posts on Awkward Botany:

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Field Trip: Bergius Botanic Garden and Copenhagen Botanical Garden

There are very few downsides to working at a botanical garden, but one of them is that the growing season can be so busy that taking time off to visit other botanical gardens when they are at their peak is challenging. Case in point, my visit to Alaska Botanical Garden last October. Another case in point, this December’s visit to a couple of gardens in Scandinavia.

That’s right, Sierra and I took a long (and much needed) break from work and headed to the other side of the world for some fun in the occasional sun of Denmark and Sweden. While we were there we visited two botanical gardens, one in Stockholm and the other in Copenhagen. Considering we were there in December, we were impressed by how many things we found all around that were still blooming. We were also impressed by how much winter interest there was in the form of seed heads, spent flower stalks, and other plant parts left in place, as opposed to everything being chopped down to the ground as soon as fall arrives (which is often the case in our part of the world). We may not have been there in the warmest or sunniest time of year, but there was still plenty of natural beauty to capture our attention.

Bergius Botanic Garden

The first of the two gardens we visited was Bergius Botanic Garden (a.k.a. Bergianska trädgården) in Stockholm, Sweden. It is located near Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. It was founded in 1791 and moved to its current location in 1885. It was immediately obvious that the gardens were thoughtfully planned out, particularly the systematic beds in which the plants were organized according to their evolutionary relationship to each other. The extensive rock garden, which was a collection of small “mountains” with a series of paths winding throughout, was also impressive. Since we arrived just as the sun was beginning to set, we were happy to find that the Edvard Anderson Conservatory was open where we could explore a whole other world of plants, many more of which were flowering at the time.

Walking into Bergius Botanic Garden with the Edvard Anderson Conservatory in the distance.

Sierra poses with kale, collard, and Brussels sprout trees in the Vegetable Garden.

seed heads of velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

corky bark of cork-barked elm (Ulmus minor ‘Suberosa’)

pomelo (Citrus maxima) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Camellia japonica ‘Roger Hall’ in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

carrion-flower (Orbea variegata) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Cape African-queen (Anisodontea capensis) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Copenhgen Botanical Garden

The Copenhagen Botanical Garden (a.k.a. Botanisk have) is a 10 hectare garden that was founded in 1600 and moved to its current location in 1870. It is part of the University of Copenhagen and is located among a series of glasshouses built in 1874, a natural history museum, and a geological museum. Unfortunately, the glasshouses and museums were closed the day we visited, but we still enjoyed walking through the grounds and exploring the various gardens.

A large rock garden, similar to the one at Bergius, was a prominent feature. We learned from talking to a gardener working there that since Denmark is not known for its rich supply of large rocks, most of the rocks in the garden came from Norway. However, a section of the rock garden was built using fossilized coral found in Denmark that dates back to the time that the region was underwater.

Another great feature was the Nordic Beer Garden, a meticulously organized collection of plants used in beer recipes from the time of the Vikings to the Nordic brewers of today. Even though the majority of the plants in this garden were dormant, the interpretive signage and fastidious layout was memorable.

Walking into Copenhagen Botanical Garden with the Palm House in the distance.

lots of little pots of dormant bulbs

seed head of Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza echinata)

fruits of Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Viburnum farreri ‘Nanum’

seed head of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

pods exposing the seeds of stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)