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Health Life & Style

Plant of the Week: Popular houseplant used by members of Spanish inquisition


Name: Dumcane (Dieffenbachia seguine)

Also known as: Mother in law’s spear

Habitat: A perennial member of the Aracaceae family, growing to 1.4m in moist-rich soil in tropical central and South America. It produces a thick, upright stem from which sprout an array of large, shield-shaped leaves that are distinguished by a series of white ribs running the length of the leaf.

What does it do: Apart from being one of the world’s most popular houseplants, which is capable of poisoning anything that comes in contact with it by the absorption of the tiny crystalline spikes containing calcium oxalate, oxalic acid, and histamine proteolytic enzymes that will cause gross swelling of the lips, tongue and vocal chords thereby rendering the victim dumb – hence Dumbcane. If the resin contacts the eyes it will cause temporary blindness.

The Spanish Inquisition used Dumbcane to punish recalcitrant witnesses. Cervantes records the Spanish ranchers controlled their cattle with stems of the plant. The peasantry of Brazil believe the number of newly emerged leaves will predict the winning number in the National Lottery.

The Shamans of the Yanesha tribe of Peru extract substances from Dumbcane to treat malaria and leishmaniasis amazonenisis. The Yamomani of Brazil use the sap in a most peculiar way: they coat the arrow tips with it when engaged in conflict with rivals, because it will render them impotent for three months. This was one of the secret contents of the plant that the Gestapo used in their experiments of eugenics during WWII in concentration camps.

Modern herbalist use extracts of the plant to treat frigidity and gout.


Alexander McCowan is author of the World’s most Dangerous Plants

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