February 10, 2017


March Photo: Bernd Haynold

Revenge of the Nymph

February Daphne or Spurge Olive (Daphne mezereum). The spurge olive gets ist scientific name from the Greek nymph Daphne who tried to flee the philandering advances of an aroused god Apollon.

English version

She appealed to goddess Aphrodite (or Zeus, Apollon’s father) who turned her into a small bush – with sap so poisonous the mere touch causes blisters and burns on bare skin. That must have dampened Apollon’s lust real quick. Daphne flowers early in spring (March to April) with extremely pink flowers on bare branches topped by a whorl of light green leaves. The pea-sized, red, bitter berries can be found from Juli to September. This deciduous brush grows up to 1.5m in height and can be found mostly in beech forests on limy soil. It is distributed all over Eurasia, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal in Siberia and up to 2000 metres.


The seeds contain mezerein and the bark daphnetoxin as well as daphnin (a coumarin-glycosid). Mezerein and daphnin are strong irritants that lead to inflammation and blistering on skin and mucous membranes, but also damage kidneys, central nervous and cardiovascular system. Ingestion causes increased salivation, swallowing is hampered and a burning sensation spreads in the mouth. Vomiting and bloody diarrhoea follow, as well as fever, abdominal cramps, bloody urine, paralysis, shock and circulatory collapse. Daphnetoxin, on the other hand, is carcinogenic.

Reaction time

45 min to several hours.


Resorption of the poison (berry and bark sap) can also occur through intact skin. Drying, heating and storing Daphne parts will not reduce toxicity!

Toxic doses

10-12 berries can kill an adult human, 3-5 berries a child or a pig, 30 grams of bark a horse and 12 grams of bark a dog. Birds like thrushes are not affected by the poison in Daphne berries. Eating Daphne berries by the beakful, they even contribute to spreading Daphne mezereum with their droppings.


In 1887, the British Medical Journal reported a case of involuntary Daphne berry poisoning in a 4-year old girl. The girl had eaten more than half a dozen berries, but fortunately had swallowed them whole and vomited them back up again, so she survived. Another case, this time voluntary, occurred in 1870 in Toronto, Canada, when a woman offered her ex-husband a daphne pie. His new wife ate it and died.

Sources for Poison Plant Plots

  • Barroso M.S. (2015)
    The Hellebore, the Plant beloved by the Greeks: the Reasons behind a Myth. Vesalius 21(2): 30-7.
  • Stevens, S. & Bannon, A. (2007)
    Book of Poisons. A Guide for Writers. Whodunit. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • McInnis, P. (2011)
    Poisons. From Hemlock to Botox and the Killer Bean Calabar. Arcade Publishing, New York.
  • Mayor, A. (2003)
    Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs. Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Overlook Duckworth. New York.
  • Eisendle, H. (2009)
    Tod & Flora. Jung und Jung Verlag, Wien. (German only)


www.vetpharm.uzh.ch/giftdb/ (Poison database of the University of Zurich Veterinary Toxicology Institute, German only!)

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