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Forensic Study of Indian Toxicological Plants as Botanical Weapon (BW): A Review


Balvant S. Khajja, Mukesh Sharma, Rajveer Singh and Girish K. Mathur

State Forensic Science Laboratory, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India


A poison is a substance which, when administered, inhaled or ingested, is capable of acting deleteriously on the human body. Thus, there are really no limits, between a medicine and a poison, for a medicine in a toxic dose is a poison and a poison in a small dose may be a medicine means, it depends on dose/quantity only. In law, the real difference between a medicine and a poison is the intent with which it is given. If the substance is given with the intention to save life, it is a medicine but if it is given with the intention to cause bodily harm, it is a poison [1]. It is fact that virtually any substances can be harmful at high concentration- as Paracelsus (1493-1541), the father of toxicology said in the sixteenth century, “Everything is poison, there is poison

in everything, only the dose makes a thing not a poison” [2]. In the context of biology, poisons are substances that can cause disturbances to organisms. Throughout human history, intentional application of poison has been used as a method of assassination, murder, suicide, and execution. Poison includes both naturally produced compounds and chemicals manufactured by humans. Natural poisons are produced by species of bacteria, fungi, protists, plants and animals. Poisonous plants are those which cause serious problems or even death occur, if a small quantity of its stem, leaves, seeds, fruits and roots are ingested [3]. Some other plants are normally harmless but they may become toxic if preparative from them are taken in excess in strong doses or for along period of time as suggested by Qureshi et al. [4].

Poisoned weapons were used in ancient India, and war tactics in ancient India have references to poison. A verse in Sanskrit reads “Jalam visravayet sarmavamavisravyam ca dusayet,” which translates to “Waters of wells were to be mixed with poison and thus polluted.”Chanakya (c. 350–283 BC), also known as Kautilya, was adviser and prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340–293 BC). Kautilya suggested employing means such as seduction, secret use of weapons, and poison for political gain [5].

Susruta Samhita has described several modes of poisoning in ancient India. He has explained how the poisons are mixed with food, drink, honey, and snuff or sprinkled over cloths, beds, couches, shoes, garlands and jewellary, saddles of horses, etc. Therefore, it may be concluded that these practices were in vogue in his time [6]. Gradually, there arose a class of “professional poisoners” who could ingeniously mask the bitter taste or strange odours of the poisons with sweet tasting and pleasant substances [1].

The incidence of poisoning in India is among the highest in the world, and it is estimated that more than 50,000 people die every year from toxic exposure [7]. The causes of poisoning are many – civilian and industrial, accidental and deliberate. The commonest agents in India appear to be pesticides (organophosphates, carbamates, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and pyrethroids), sedative drugs, chemicals (corrosive acids and copper sulfate), alcohols, plant toxins (datura, oleander, strychnos, and gastro-intestinal irritants such as castor, croton, calotropis, etc.), and household poisons (mostly cleaning agents). [8].

Poisonous plants of India have been described by few workers [9-10]. A lot of work has been reported on toxicology of plants but no work has been done specially on poisonous plants study in terms of forensic context. In the present study, a review has been performed on almost poisonous plants of India about their fatal dose and fatal period. In this article, we reported basic details such as the botanical and family names, toxic parts of plant, chemical constituents and information about fatal dose and fatal period of the important plants.

Poisoning in India

There are more than 4000 species of medicinal plants growing as herbs, shrubs, and trees in India, many of which are poisonous when administered in large doses. The toxic principles belong to alkaloids, glycosieds, toxalbumins, resind, cannabinoides and polypeptides.

Suicide in India, as poison can be easily obtained and many poisonous plants grow wild, eg.datura, oleanders, aconite, nux vomica, etc. Many Indians consider the taking of life by blood-shed a greater crime than poisoning, strangling etc. Accidental poisoning occurs from the use of philters or love potions and quack remedies containing poisonous drugs. The incidence of poisoning in India is among the highest in the world, and it is estimated that more than 50,000 people die every year from toxic exposure [3]. The causes of poisoning are many – civilian and industrial, accidental and deliberate. One recent study pertaining to poisoning statistics demonstrated more of such differences between northern and southern Indian states [11].

Classification of Poison

According to their mode of action, poisons are broadly classified in three groups, these three broad groups are sub-divided on the basis of their effect on the body, type of composition etc., which are available in the literature [1-3] and summarized as shown in Figure 1.

Criminal Offences in Indian Panel Code (IPC)

The administration of a poison is a criminal offence whenever (i) It is with intent to kill, (ii) with intent to cause serious injury, (iii) used recklessly even though there is no intent to kill, (iv) for stupefying to facilitate a crime, eg., robbery or rape, (v) to procure an abortion, (vi) to annoy the victim, (vii) to throw poison on another person with intention to injure him [11].


Now a day, in India mostly poisons are used for robbery and suicidal purposes. For example Datura is used by that sect of the thugs who poisoned wayfarers. Even today the poisoning and robbing of travelers was of frequent occurrence in India. By the judicious use of datura a whole household can be so drugged that the thieves can ransack the house at their ease. Datura has frequently been detected in the vomit of the victims of a midnight robbery. Red chilli powder is frequently used in the robbery or a confession of some guilt by introducing it into the nostrils, eyes, urethra, vagina, or rectum. Hyocyamus is used in war to control shell-shock. Poisoning is generally accidental though an overdose or rarely homicidal as in the crippen case. In forensic work, it can be used as a truth serum or lie detector. Hemlock was Athenian state-poison by which Socrates died.

Characteristics of Ideal Poison

The characters of an ideal homicidal/suicidal poison should be (i) cheap, (ii) easily available, (iii) colourless, odorless and tasteless, (iv) capable of being administered, either in food, drink or medicine, without producing any obvious change to prevent suspicion, (v) highly toxic (vi) capable of painless death (vii) signs and symptoms should resemble a natural disease, or the serious ill effects should be delayed sufficiently long for the accused to escape suspicion, (viii) must be rapidly destroyed or made undetectable in the body.

The number of factors, which are affecting the characteristics of poisoning any victim’s as dose/quantity given to the victim, in which form (physical/chemical) the poison inject to the body, resistivity of body and condition of the victim (he/she might be drug addict/ in sleep or intoxication). Unless the poison is given in liquid form or small amount, the greater part of it may be lost by vomiting. However, the reorganization of poisoning during life is a matter of the first important, both from the point of view of the medical jurist and as a forensic crime scene investigator.


It is essential to take cognizance of the fact that overuse or abuse of the medicinal constituents of plants can cause danger [9]. Plants containing glucosides, acids or alkaloids are used as medicines. Thus when taken in excess often have adverse effect. The latex, white or coloured sap found in families of Apocynaceae, Asclepiadaceae, Sapotaceae, Euphorbiaceae and Papaveraceae, if used in excess always act as poison. Plants of family Araceae have calcium carbonate oxalate crystals, which cause intense irritation of mouth and throat, as also swelling of throat and intestinal lining. This may cause suffocation or death. Some plants containing orthophosphoric acids cause painful irritation and eruption if they came in contact with skin or mucous

membrane. There are some plants or products like seeds of Annona squamosa L. and unripe pineapple when consumed induce abortion in pregnant women. The review on all toxic plants has been summarized in Table 1, this table provide a fundamental database for the forensic community which has been reviewed with the available literature [12 –18], those who are working the field of forensic crime scene and as well as toxicologist as standard comparison during laboratory examination, which plants contains which type of constituents in it. Even plant toxins were quite low in incidence, which is because of the difficulty in testing for such toxins in the laboratory, as compared to chemicals.


In this paper, more than 50 poisonous plant species belonging to number of families are reported in the present paper. The poisonous parts of the majority of plants species were seeds, latex and root or root bark. Besides these poisonous parts of some plants were fruits, stem bark, tubers or bulbs and sometimes whole plant also. Some plants causes poisoning to both human beings as well as livestock populations, while some causes poisoning to human being only [19].

There are many plants which have no medicinal value and not used for the edible purpose but which are at times ingested through oversight, particularly by children. Many of these are responsible for poisoning in cattle. Some of the plants have been used for the poisoning purposes and for committing suicide.

There are some plants like Cerbera odollum, Cleistanthus collinus, Strychnos nux –vomica,Abrus precatorius, Colchicum autumnale, and Datura metel are very toxic plants and used for homicidal and suicidal purposes. Almost no other plant has such a history of crime as datura and the seeds are favorite poisons used for this purpose. Colchicum autumnale poisoning has been compared with arsenic poisoning.

Those plants which are allergens or less poisonous, are used in burglary purpose in buses/trains Mucuna prurita is most useful plants for burglary purpose. Sometimes accidental poisoning by poisonous plants has also been observed in tribal area of south Rajasthan. To this day, some writers continue to talk about ricin as a potential bioterrorism weapon insisting that Iraq was producing ricin but completely ignoring the evidence that this production was small scale, terminated in the mid 2000s and was for use in assassination [20-21].

Significance of this review on such plants helps to forensic investigators in solving the crime and searching the poisoning- plantmaterials on crime spot. On crime spot forensic connoisseur can get evidence related to suicidal, accidental or homicidal poisoning by poisonous plants like parts of plants, spot of crime like forest/garden, symptoms of poisoning can help to direct the investigation of right path. On the basis of plant origin toxicity forensic team can tell whether it is suicide, homicide or accident.



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