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What is a Rosary Pea?

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  • Written By: Laura Evans
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2016
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The rosary pea, or Abrus precatorius, is a vine that is native to India and parts of Asia. This vine is established in Florida and grows in areas with warm climates in United States and around the world. Rosary pea seeds are poisonous. Consuming these seeds can lead to death. Leaves and roots have been used in traditional medicine.

Rosary peas, also called Jequirity, Crab's Eye, and John Crow Bead, are perennial vines that can grow to 10 to 20 feet (3.05 to 6.1 m). The flowers of this plant are small and in the pink-red-purple range in color. This plant is a legume, meaning it produces pods. Pods are 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 3.8 cm) long. Seeds are bright red with black spots on one end and are uniform in size and weight.

Abrus precatorius seeds are used in jewelry such as pendants, necklaces and rosaries. Rosary pea seeds are also used in toys and percussion instruments to create noise. Traditional medicine practitioners use parts of the rosary pea plant to induce abortions and to help stimulate labor. The toxin in rosary peas may eventually prove to be useful in treating cancer.

Abrin is the main toxic agent in rosary peas. When consumed, abrin prevents cells from making proteins, eventually leading to the death of the cells. Abrin can be eaten, inhaled or injected. With the case of rosary pea, a victim would most likely have ingested the peas.

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According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of abrin poisoning can start to occur within six hours of eating the poison, although symptoms usually appear one to three days later. Symptoms of ingesting abrin can include vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, seizures, and hallucinations. In addition, the mouth and esophagus may develop lesions. Urine, vomit, and diarrhea may be bloody.

Abrin poisoning cannot be "cured" and there is no antidote. Possible treatments for those who have eaten abrin include administering fluids intravenously and treating low blood pressure and hallucinations with medications. If caught early enough, the stomach may be flushed with activated charcoal. Patients typically survive if the patients live three to five days.

Rosary pea can be dangerous to both human beings and pets. People should consider removing these plants from their yards to prevent accidental poisonings and to prevent the plant from spreading. This vine is quite invasive if not properly controlled.

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