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Why It Is Important To Check Before You Touch Or Eat Plants When Traveling

I like to travel, and I like plants. It is always a great fun to see new flowers, to taste new fruits and berries, to hide in the shade of the unknown trees and to learn about new plants from locals when you travel to a new country.

I am a city girl. I’ve just had a small experience of growing vegetables and fruits, when my parents had a tiny piece of land for gardening a long time ago. They were growing some simple veggies like potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, squash, eggplant, garlic, some herbs, a bit of strawberries and several fruit trees: a peach tree, an apricot tree and a sea buckthorn tree. So, my knowledge of horticulture and botany was limited by this small gardening experience, several houseplants at home, vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs I saw at the local markets, and the plants I’ve been noticing in the streets and parks of the cities and towns of my country, Ukraine.

So, to say it in several words, I’ve never thought about plants as being dangerous and I’ve never been talking precautions when handling plants until I have started to travel oversees.

Several years ago my dream to travel to India came true. At that time, I wasn’t interested in plants so much, as everything around was new to me. I’ve been just fascinated by this incredible country, by her culture and people. My first trip was short: two weeks in Goa and Karnataka state passed fast, everything went well and I’ve safely returned back to Kyiv, Ukraine.

A year later, I’ve decided to visit India again, and this was when my love to plants has started to grow. I’ve started to notice many interesting trees with unknown fruits, flowers I’ve never seen in my life, I’ve been reading articles about Ayurveda, my friends were telling me their stories with Ayurvedic doctors and healing plants. When I traveled to India for a second time, I was sick, I had a sore throat, small fever and some type of a cold. When I arrived, I felt even worse, so I’ve decided to visit an Ayurvedic doctor. He told me, that I’ve just had a throat infection and prescribed me some pills to chew and a syrup to drink. No labels, no ingredients. The only thing I knew, everything was natural – only herbal extracts from herbs, grown locally.

Ayurveda medicine

I felt desperate and I was afraid that my vacation would be ruined by sickness, so I took prescribed Ayurvedic medicines immediately in the evening. All night I was sweating. In the morning I had no fever anymore, my throat was nearly ok, and I felt much better. Next day I was completely healed. But this post is not about Ayurveda.

During my second trip to India, I wasn’t so afraid to taste new fruits and vegetables like during my first trip. I’ve been wandering at the local markets, checking for edible plants I’ve never seen before in my life and buying them to taste. That’s when for the first time I’ve tasted fresh papaya, guava, and chikoo, also known as Manilkara Zapota or Sapodilla, Sapota, Mispel, Chico or Chicozapote.

Wherever I was going, I was irresistibly drawn to plants. I was taking pictures of herbs, flowers and trees, to show to friends or locals in order to learn the names or to hear interesting stories. For example, one friend shared a story about the leaves, he was given to chew by his landlord in India, when he had problems with his stomach. He couldn’t remember the name of this plant but had a photo, so later I asked for help to identify this shrub on Snaplant.com. See this question here.

Caesalpinia bonduc, commonly known as Gray NickerCaesalpinia bonduc, commonly known as Gray Nicker

So, all these stories above made me feel relaxed about an unknown flora.

One day, I went out to explore the area around. I stopped at the local market and bought the chikoo (sapodilla) to eat later. After a lot of walking, I got hungry and sat down in the empty field to eat the fruits:

Sapodilla, Manilkara Zapota or ChikooManilkara Zapota or Sapodilla, Sapota, Chikoo

They were very sweet and delicious.

I was enjoying my little break while eating and looking around. Further away, I’ve noticed a big tree with some fruits on it. The fruits looked similar to what I was eating – chikoo! They’ve looked a little bit greener, but I thought they were just not ripe enough.

I got up and walked to the tree. It was huge and there were several cows and bulls grazing around it. When I got closer, one bull started to go towards me looking a bit aggressive. I stopped, took a couple of photos of the tree, waited a little until the bull lost his interest in me and started to eat grass again.

Strychnine tree

Strychnos nux-vomicaStrychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica)

I tried to walk closer to get the fruits but when the bull saw me, he jumped in my direction ready to attack me. I have got really scared and ran away through a small entrance in the nearest fence, where the crazy cows couldn’t reach me. I was a bit disappointed, that I couldn’t get more chikoo, but happy, that I’ve managed to escape the crazy bull.

When I came back to Ukraine, I forgot the name of those little sweet brown fruits, but I had the photos of the tree I’ve managed to take while running away from the mad cows. So, I’ve posted my question here on Snaplant, asking to help me find the name of this plant.

The answer I’ve got really shocked me. That wasn’t the sapodilla or chikoo tree (Manilkara Zapota). It was a strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), also known as nux vomica, poison nut, semen strychnos and quaker buttons. It is a tree in the family Loganiaceae (sometimes Strychnaceae) that grows in open habitats and native to India, and southeast Asia.

It is a major source of the highly poisonous, intensely bitter alkaloids strychnine and brucine, derived from the seeds inside the tree’s round, green to orange fruit. The seeds contain approximately 1.5% strychnine, and the dried blossoms contain 1.0%. However, the tree’s bark also contains brucine and other poisonous compounds.

Strychnine is highly regulated in many countries, and is mostly used in baits to kill feral mammals, including wild dogs, foxes, and rodents. Most accidental poisoning is by breathing in the powder or by absorption through the skin.

Now I feel like saying thanks to the mad cows (or maybe Holy cows!) šŸ™‚ which were grazing under the tree, so I couldn’t come closer to take the fruit! Wow!!

Later, I shared these news with my friends in India and got an answer: “Yes, we remember that tree, when one Indian cook told us that we cannot even touch it, because after we will poo like ducks!” šŸ™‚ But the fruit really looked to me like the chikoo fruit! Now I know that the leaves are different!

I wanted to share this story with you just to show that it is very important to check before you touch or eat plants, especially when you travel. While traveling, you see many unknown plants or plants which look familiar, but don’t hurry to eat them or even touch them. It is better to check first, to find the name of the plant, to make sure, that this tree, fruit, berry or flower is exactly the one you are thinking about, exactly the one you know or saw before. Be careful during your travels, and even when you are at home, in your native country. Ask locals, your friends, ask your questions here on snaplant.com, ask professionals for the plant identification, as it can really save your life.

traveler with a backpack

Author: Traveler LS
Cover photo: Manilkara Zapota or Sapodilla (Chikoo)

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