Synonyms: Dog button, false angostura, poison nut, Quaker buttons
Scientific Name: Strychnos nux-vomica L.
Family: Loganiaceae (Nux vomica family)
Tropical regions of Asia, South-West Asia, Ceylon, Java, Northern Australia
Strychnine, brucine, vomicine, various secondary alkaloids
Nux vomica should be treated with great respect. This evergreen tree with its round, short-stalked leaves can grow to 25 metres high and is permeated throughout with the deadly neurotoxin strychnine. The young, light green branches of the tropical tree contrast strongly with the dark-grey to yellow-grey bark of its trunk. The greenish-white funnel-shaped flowers grow up to one centimetre across and develop into orange-red berries with a diameter of up to six centimetres. They contain three to four ash-grey, disk-shaped seeds embedded within the white, bitter-tasting and gelatin-like flesh of the fruit: these are the nuts of the nux vomica. The nuts are extremely hard, covered in silky hairs, and are under considerable tension. When they become damp the seeds, which are one to two centimetres in size and look like buttons, burst explosively along their length and germinate. Nux vomica trees love hot, dry locations on the edge of thick woods near to the coast.
Nux vomica is a good illustration of the homeopathic principle of healing like with like. In amounts between 0.75 and 3 grams nux vomica causes severe muscular cramps, paralysis of the central nervous system and muscles, and paralysis of the respiratory system which eventually leads to death! In small doses, however, nux vomica increases muscle tone, stimulates breathing and improves the circulation. In potentised form it has a relaxing and detoxifying action on the digestive organs and the nervous system.
Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) included homoeopathically prepared nux vomica among the polychrests – remedies of value in the treatment of several diseases. More than 7300 individual symptoms are listed as being treatable with nux vomica. Potentised nux vomica is especially beneficial in the case of gastrointestinal problems associated with prolonged stress, time pressures, the demands of the workplace or lack of sleep.
Nux vomica are odourless but have a bitter, sharp and nauseating taste. Hence the name nux vomica, which is also its scientific epithet and comes from the Latin nux = nut and vomicus = causing nausea. The name is, however, misleading, since the nuts seldom actually cause vomiting. The scientific name Strychnos also comes from Latin and means something like ‘a clan of the nightshade family’. This botanically incorrect classification might have come about because the properties of nux vomica were regarded as similar to those of the nightshade family, e.g. belladonna or deadly nightshade.
Over a thousand years ago nux vomica was already known to Arab physicians as a useful remedy. It was also a basic ingredient for preparing poisoned darts. In the 15th century the nut arrived in Europe from South-East Asia via the trade routes and was used to fight the plague. In the 17th century it was employed as an aid to fishing and as an effective poison for vermin such as rats and mice. Indian and Chinese medicine prescribe nux vomica for lack of appetite, muscular weakness and paralysis, pain and fevers, to aid blood circulation, to relieve menstrual complaints, to increase potency and to treat cholera and rabies.
The sadhus of Nepal consume a narcotic hemp mixture known as bhang which contains nux vomica. Sadhus are ascetic mendicants who have abjured the life of the world and, like their god Shiva, pile their long hair on top of their heads. They smoke or eat bhang to intensify their meditation and achieve spiritual closeness to Shiva. Nux vomica also complements the euphoric and aphrodisiac effects of traditional oriental happiness pills. However, it is extremely inadvisable to experiment with mixtures like these, since the smallest overdose can end fatally!
Even today, strychnine is obtained from nux vomica. Incidentally, contrary to the impression given by some inventive authors of murder mysteries, strychnine is not a suitable poison for murderers, due to its exceedingly bitter taste. In suitable doses, however, it does prevent muscle cramps, which is why it is on the list of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs. In 1904 Thomas J. Hicks (1875-1963), who was on the USA light athletics team, profited from this property when he won the marathon at the Olympic Games with the help of strychnine.
And why is nux vomica so poisonous? One obvious-seeming answer – that the plant uses the poison to protect itself against predators – is actually controversial. On the one hand, research into tobacco, for example, shows that the plant raises its levels of the alkaloid nicotine when it is injured. On the other hand it has been observed that plants containing alkaloids are eaten and colonised by various animals and fungi to just the same extent as non-poisonous plants. Some animals even enjoy nux vomica. The rhinoceros birds of the Asian and African tropics live on these plants, among other things.