Notes from the botanical etymology division, toxicology subcommittee

By Charlie Rohwer (Visiting Professor)

The recent assassination attempt England, interesting and significant geopolitically, has reminded me about one of my favorite Latin plant names. A report on the radio stated that atropine therapy is used to treat the specific poison involved in the attempt. To paraphrase Dr. Randy Pausch, “I’m a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.” Therefore, I have no authority on the medical uses of atropine. The world Health Organization lists it as a preoperative anesthetic on its list of essential medicines, so it must be pretty important.

Atropa belladonna, Leipzig botanical garden

But I do like horticulture and I like words. That’s where my interests lie in relation to this story. Many medicines are or have been plant-based. Atropine itself comes from certain plants in the nightshade family. Like any chemical people use, dosage of atropine determines its effects; atropine can be medically useful, or it can be deadly. The drug is named after a specific plant from which atropine can be obtained, Atropa belladonna. The omnibotanist Linnaeus named it in 1753 (can someone come up with a better word for him than ‘omnibotanist?’).

‘Belladonna,’ as it’s commonly called, is a small shrub native to Europe and Asia. ‘Belladonna’ comes from the Italian words ‘bella’ and ‘donna,’ meaning ‘beautiful woman.’ An extract from the plant was applied topically to eyes during the Renaissance to dilate pupils. One sign of sexual arousal is dilated pupils, so the extract would cause a response that looked like sexual arousal. If you were a lady going to a fancy party during the Renaissance and you wanted to look beautiful, belladonna may have helped (according to beauty standards of the time). My optometrist told me atropine isn’t used for retinal exams today because its effects last too long.

Dilated pupil

The other common name for Atropa belladonna is ‘deadly nightshade.’ The drug, atropine, is made of two isomers of hyoscyamine, made by the plant (and some other related plants). At some doses, hyoscyamine causes muscles to relax (like the iris, for example) due to its effects on nerves that control muscles. At larger doses, it can kill because you need muscles to breathe and to pump blood at a reasonable rate. Dosage and route of entry are important!

The author with one of his favorite books.

So Atropa belladonna was used to make ladies beautiful, hence the epithet ‘belladonna.’ But what about ‘Atropa?’ What’s that mean? Where does the drug atropine ultimately get its name? My favorite book as a kid was “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.” Linneaus borrowed from the Greek myth of the three Fates in order to name deadly nightshade. According to D’Aulaires, these goddesses of destiny “…knew the past and the future, and even Zeus had no power to sway their decisions.” Nobody can escape fate. The three fates were named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The fates are responsible for the thread of everybody’s life. Clotho spins the thread at birth, Lachesis measures it out and determines destiny (what’s on the thread and how long it is), and Atropos (‘inflexible’ or ‘unturnable’) cuts the thread after Lachesis has apportioned it. Atropos is the goddess directly responsible for the end of everyone’s thread of life, and her action is final.

The Three Fates

Atropa belladonna simultaneously means something like ‘inevitable, inflexible death’ AND ‘beautiful lady.’ Indeed, the dose makes the poison.


Hello Again, and a fun article that was called to my attention.

By Jeff Gillman (posted by Linda C-S, who has taken liberties with using photos from UNC Charlotte gardens that have nothing to do with Jeff’s post.)

Living arch at UNC Charlotte gardens

It has been almost two years since I have had the chance to post anything as a Garden Professor. Since then I’ve taken a job as the Director of UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens and there are all kinds of things I’d like to share with you, and perhaps sometime over the next few weeks and months I will, but for now what is probably most pertinent is that I absolutely love my job. I am still doing some work on garden myths, but what I’m finding more entertaining is investigating the histories of different plants and their interactions with humans. In fact, in about a month or so, my friend Cindy Proctor and I will be releasing a podcast titled The Plants We Eat that investigates the interesting history, culture and biology of the various plants we use for food. We’ve already recorded shows on strawberries, grapes and mad honey, and we’ll be doing shows on apples, figs, and a few others before we release it – we want to have a decent backlog of shows so that we can maintain a pace of one podcast a week.

UNC Charlotte gardens

But enough about me! The current Gardens Professors called my attention to a recent article titled “The effect of ad hominem attacks on the evaluation of claims promoted by scientists”, and I found it informative to say the least. This article provides instructions on how to stop people from trusting a particular study.

No, seriously. If you wanted to you could actually rewrite this as a short manual on how to make people question the results of any scientific study.

And if you did I think it would look kind of like this:

(Short Disclaimer – I’m pretty sure that the authors of the above article never intended it to be taken in the way I’m presenting it. I’m posting this purely as satire.)

So, someone has published a scientific article that you disagree with. Hey, we’ve all been there. Scientific evidence that contradicts your beliefs/works/preconceived notions sucks, but it isn’t the end of the world. There are things you can do.

You might consider conducting your own well-designed experiments that would call into question some of the claims of the offending work. Once upon a time this was been the standard way to address this kind of problem, but this could take months or even years to accomplish. And the truth of the matter is that your experiment might not even say what you want it to and even if it does, with attention spans the way they are, nobody will even remember what you’re even talking about when your paper comes out.

Which is to say, there are better, faster ways to take care of inconvenient research, and that’s where this convenient manual comes into play.

Rain gardens at UNC Charlotte

First, realize that attacking the research itself isn’t a sure thing. Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but morals be damned, attacking the research itself can be waaaayyy too technical. People won’t understand what you’re talking about, so forget about it.

Attacking researchers personally by making nasty comments about where they graduated from college or that they do sloppy research would seem like winner, that kind of attack just doesn’t cut it today. Maybe it’s the political climate, but, to their credit, people just aren’t responding to non-specific personal attacks the way they once did.

So you’ve got to be smart and hit them where it hurts. You could say that data was fabricated in the paper that you want to discredit, but this could be problematic if it isn’t true. Not to worry. All you really need to do is find an instance where the researcher did do something wrong. In fact, it’s possible that some past misconduct could be even more effective at discrediting a paper than misconduct on the paper in question itself.

The gold standard, however, is conflict of interest. By establishing that the researcher who has caused you grief has some sort of conflict of interest you can cause people to question the results of research just about as effectively as if some sort of misconduct had taken place, and conflicts of interest are much easier to find! You could blame a company, a person, or even a University. Shoot, want to show that a study, which demonstrates that an herbicide is effective at controlling a weed, isn’t true? All you need to do is show that the company which makes the herbicide gave a few hundred dollars to an athletic program at the school, or show that one of the student workers in the lab has a second cousin employed by the company. It’s all good.

Water hyacinth

And so there you have it. The fast, easy way to discredit someone. And remember, just implying things can be as effective as having facts. No need to lie! Good Luck, and remember The Truth is What You Make It!

Cryptic cladophylls – stems hiding in plain sight

One of my favorite topics back when I taught Botany 101 was plant oddities. A recent question on our Garden Professors’ discussion group on Facebook reminded me about cladophylls, like the one pictured below.

Terminal stem of Schlumbergera

Cladophyll literally means “branch leaf.” Anatomically it’s a branch (it has nodes from which new stems, leaves, flowers, and even roots can arise), but it functions as a leaf. It’s the main site of photosynthesis in plants such as holiday cacti (Schlumbergera species). Like other cacti, they have reduced leaves and if you look closely at the photo, you can see the leaves as tiny hairs arising from the nodes at the end of the stem and along the sides.

But unlike cacti, these plants aren’t found in deserts, and their leaves are soft threads rather than the vicious sharp spines you’ll find in typical cacti. Instead, these are generally epiphytes in coastal mountains where humidity is relatively high. But root water is limited for epiphytes and these waxy cladophylls probably are adaptations against water loss. Their reduced leaves are immune to drought stress, unlike those of other succulents which appear only when water is plentiful.

Euphorb leaves will drop when water is unavailable

As you might expect from their red, tubular flowers, holiday cacti are pollinated by hummingbirds in their native environment. Gardeners who have a sufficiently mild climate to grow these outdoors might be lucky enough to see them visited.

Schlumbergera flower