Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Magical Fruit for Grumpy Old Men

The case of the home-grown, retirement-age terrorist plotters (covered by AP here and the New York Times here) is a nice reminder that terrorists come in more than one color, as well as a range of ages, although mostly one gender. Remember the 88-year-old man who shot up the Holocaust Museum in 2009?

These losers in Georgia are said to have been copying the plot of a novel, written by an ex-militia leader named Mike Vanderboegh. He sounds like a piece of work. According to AP, his novel's introduction describes the book as a "call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry... They need to know how powerful they could truly be if they were pushed into a corner."

Sounds pretty clear, right? Well, now Vanderboegh claims, "I'm glad that the FBI has apparently short-circuited some weak-minded individuals from misinterpreting my novel." Hmm.

All very interesting, but I have to say that what caught my attention most strongly was the part about the poisonous plant. According to the Times, the plotters planned to "kill masses of people using poison from a bean plant that people in this rural part of the state grow to ward off moles."

Beans? Would that be castor beans (Ricinus communis)?

Reading further into the story I found it was indeed: The FBI found one of the men had "along the driveway a few dozen castor bean plants that they believe were to be the raw material for the biological toxin ricin, which can be fatal if ingested even in small doses."

Ricin is the gas that was used in the Tokyo subway poisonings in 1995. According to the Georgia department of health, it first causes fever, cough, difficulty breathing, nausea and chest tightness. These symptoms are followed by "extreme sweating, skin turning blue, low blood pressure, and finally, respiratory failure and circulatory collapse. After inhaling a small particle of aerosolized ricin, symptoms would likely appear within eight hours. Time to death would probably be 36 - 72 hours, depending on the dose received."

You may not know this, but the castor bean plant is very common in gardens around the U.S., including in Minnesota. It's grown for its huge, tropical-looking leaves. It shoots up from just about zero to this size in a single growing season, even in the Northern Plains:

Ricinus communis 'Zanzibar', about 6 feet tall with huge jagged dark purple leaves

Seeds of Ricinus communis 'Carmencita', bright pink spikey spheres, like fluorescent burrs
Thank goodness it's an annual and not a perennial.

All parts of the plant are toxic to touch, and the beans themselves (which are gorgeous, by the way) can kill you from contact.

Responsible gardeners who grow it plant it in the middle of their flowerbeds or against a fence, surrounded by other plants, so people won't come close to it. But I've also seen it planted on boulevards, between a street and a sidewalk -- not just within reach, but practically growing in your face as you walk by. And once I saw it in a botanic garden in Buffalo, N.Y., where it was right next to the door of the old-fashioned glass conservatory, which I can only imagine is visited by children with some frequency. Those seeds are clearly what lawyers would consider an attractive nuisance, so I don't know how they get a way with that.

One of the things I wonder about the Georgia case is whether those half-assed losers would have been able to make the beans into something that could have been used to poison others without poisoning themselves first.

Consider yourself warned.

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