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HORSE-CHESTNUT (AESCULUS HIPPOCASTANUM)

Click image to see larger view of Horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) View Larger Image

Horse chestnut is a familiar Nova Scotian deciduous tree, well known for its large, compound leaves and colourful fruit in their spiky cases. Although this fruit is similar to the edible, sweet chestnut, the two trees are unrelated.

Horse chestnuts are toxic. Children, especially, are attracted by the lustre of the fruit, which traditionally were strung and struck against one another in the game of “conkers.”


POISON LOCATION

All parts of the horse chestnut contain toxins, especially the fruit.


POISON TYPE

Aesculin, a bitter, poisonous glycoside that breaks down blood proteins. This property has led to the development of the common rat poison warfarin, extracted from clovers, which contain a similar toxin.


TYPICAL POISONING SCENARIO

Most poisonings occur from people roasting and eating the fruit in the mistaken belief that they are the same as sweet chesnuts. They aren’t! Some people claim you can boil the toxins out of horse chestnuts, then dry them and grind them into a coarse flour, but it is not recommended.

There is no risk, incidentally, in handling the tree or its fruit.


SYMPTOMS

Horse chesnut poisoning is rarely fatal, but typically causes vomiting, loss of coordination, stupor, and occasionally, paralysis.


HORSE-CHESTNUT POISON INFORMATION

Alkaloids

Alkaloids are nitrogen-bearing alkaline chemicals that originate in plants. They are derived from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which especially affect the nervous system. At least 40% of all plant families include plants that contain these compounds.

Many plants have different alkaloids present, each with a specific activity. Some alkaloids are useful medicines; others are harmful, even fatal. Most are bitter tasting. The liver, with the assistance of enzymes, processes the alkaloids that enter the body, rendering some harmless there, while making others more toxic.

One common alkaloid, which many of us seek daily, is caffeine.


Glycosides

Glycosides are toxins in which at least one sugar molecule is linked with oxygen to another compound, often nitrogen-based. They become harmful when the sugar molecule is stripped off, as in the process of digestion.


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