Poisonous Foods: A Mystery Writer’s Perspective

Jan 23, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Food Fun, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Kaye George

Mystery writers are always looking for exotic ways to commit their literary murders. Shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning–they’ve all been done to death, so to speak. But poisons are exotic, right? The rare dart gun stuff from the Amazon curare. Or maybe a potion with a secret formula passed down through a family of what might be witches. Well, maybe not. Many writers know this, but I wonder how many non-mystery writers do?

There’s enough poison in your yard, your refrigerator, or your cupboard, to knock off a whole book club. Even things we eat have poison parts! Mushrooms aren’t always in the yard, but they often pop up after a rain. Most people love mushrooms, sautéed and stacked on a grilled steak, simmered in a soup, even sprinkled on a salad. But watch out if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Five amanita mushrooms can be fatal. Best not to pick them.mushrooms

Rhubarb pie, yum! But only if you eat the stems. The leaves will make you very sick.

An apple a day will keep the doctor away. And occasionally you might swallow a seed. But a cup full of apple seeds will kill you.APPLE

Watch out for apricots, too. Just about every part of the plant is fatal except the fruit. Don’t ingest any leaves, seeds, or parts of a twig.

Do you love peaches as much as I do? The pit contains cyanide, although you’d have to eat the insides of at least 10 pits to do you harm. The same with plum pits. A smaller amount might affect a small pet, though.

Did you mother teach you to remove the “eyes” of the potatoes before cooking? That’s probably a good thing to do, but that little eye won’t hurt you, unless a sprout is coming from it. The sprout itself is toxic. The potato is related to deadly nightshade and the poison in the sprout is the same sort of stuff. A bunch of sprouts will cause an uncomfortable death.potatoes

Here are some things that you might think are food, but don’t eat them at all. Barbados nuts grew in Florida and Hawaii and taste very good. However they contain an oil more potent that castor oil (which is deadly). In fact, it’s used for rat poison.

Baneberries look nice and some people have been tempted to make pies from them. That proved fatal to all but one member of a family in 1972.

I mentioned castor beans above. They’re beans, but don’t eat them! Two of them will kill you.

A weed called corn cockle can grow in with the corn crop and sometimes the seeds, which are the most poisonous part, get ground in with corn meal. If you eat enough, you will soon stop breathing.cornfield

Fool’s parsley is aptly named. It acts like hemlock and not parsley. It looks like poison hemlock, too, but it has been mistaken for parsley, anise and radishes, with disastrous results.

Poke sallet, also known as poke salad, made from the pokeweed, is a tricky one. We get this plant growing in our yard. I dislike the appearance, but the berries do look big and juicy. To get the “salad” you must boil the new leaves (and stems if you wish), throw off the water, and repeat at least twice with fresh water. Otherwise, stay away from those leaves. The seeds, roots, berries are poisonous also.

If you’re brave, there are some plants that are toxic sometimes and safe other times, or are safe in small quantities only.

Aki is one of these. It’s safe only when it’s fully ripened. Before that, or after it starts to rot, it’s toxic. You have to hit the window with this one.

Cassava, also called manioc tapioca or mandioc, is another. It’s dangerous if improperly cooked.

Dandelion flowers can be used to make wine, but the stems have poisoned children.

Elderberries must be cooked, they are poisonous raw.

Lastly, mandrake (also called loveapple or mayapple) can be eaten fully ripe, but don’t eat too much. It can cause hallucinations, coma and death.

You don’t have to go too far afield to find a fatal dose. Certainly not all the way to the Amazon jungle. Try your own house if you’re looking for a plot device. Use only for fiction, of course!

Poisons Handbook for Writers by David Ciambrone
Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.

Kaye George writes several mystery series and her short stories appear in anthologies, magazines, and her own collection. Fat Cat Spreads Out is coming from Berkley Prime Crime June 2nd. She lives in Knoxville, TN. You can learn more on her website.


  1. Wow, Kay, I had no idea! Now I’m going to clean out my pantry and fridge. And start writing another mystery with all those great ideas you gave me….

  2. Glad I could help! You don’t have to go far for weapons, do you?

  3. You gave me an idea for a good poison, but I don’t know yet how to get a human to eat it.

  4. I always wondered how they figured out that three boilings of the pokeweed would render it safe for consumption. I would not have been a member of that test group. 🙂

  5. Who knew? Great stuff, Kaye. Just don’t invite me to dinner if you’re mad at me, OK?

  6. Kathy, lots of spices might help.

    Sarah, I wonder about that, too. I imagine there was trial and error–and death–involved.

    Claire, you’re no fun! (OK, I promise.)

  7. We’ll just eat out together, Marilyn. OK?


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