What is Cerbera?

N. Freim

Named for the deadly three-headed dog Cerberus in Greek mythology, the genus Cerbera is a group of small evergreen trees. The species are native to parts of Asia, Australia, and the west Pacific islands. Though Cerbera trees can be attractive with their dark green leaves, white flowers, and fruit, the whole plant is poisonous. The tree produces cerberin, a toxin which can stop the heart and is difficult to detect in autopsies. Seeds of the Cerbera have been used both for murder and suicide throughout the years.

Cerbera is named after a three-headed dog, Cereberus, from Greek mythology.
Cerbera is named after a three-headed dog, Cereberus, from Greek mythology.

There are less than 15 species in the Cerbera genus of evergreen shrubs and small trees, which are all relatively similar. The various species are found through Asia, Australia, Madagascar, and certain islands in the west Pacific Ocean. At least one species, Cerbera manghas, has been brought to Hawaii as an ornamental tree.

The various species of Cerbera can grow up to 39 feet (12 meters) high. The trees keep their shiny, dark green, alternating leaves all year round. The trees also produce white flowers and some bear fruit, such as the species Cerbera floribunda which is commonly called the cassowary plum since the Southern Cassowary bird is the only animal that can eat the fruit.

Cerbera is named after Cerberus, the three headed dog of Greek mythology who guarded the gate to the Underworld, because all parts of the plant are toxic. Even using the wood for a fire can produce poisonous smoke. The tree contains the dangerous toxin cerberin, a chemical that blocks electrical impulses and can stop the heart. Cerberin is similar to digoxin, which is found in foxglove.

One variety, Cerbera odollam, is actually commonly called the “suicide tree.” The seeds in its fruit were used for years as poison in India, Asia, and Madagascar. Before the 19th century, the seeds were a popular method for proving guilt. The general belief was that those who were innocent would not die if they ingested the seeds, similar to the ideas of dunking witches.

Cerbera seeds are still used in India as a poison since the taste can be covered with spices and the chemical is hard to detect in an autopsy. Some scientists speculate that uses of Cerbera for murder may go unnoticed if the plant is not native to the location. While western scientists can recognize foxglove poisoning, Cerbera poisoning might be unidentified without direct evidence that the victim ate the plant.

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