SCOTCH BROOM (CYTISUS SCOPARIUS)
Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) makes its escape along roadsides in various counties in Nova Scotia. European immigrants introduced this useful species, which they used as a coffee substitute, herbal remedy, and source of yellow dye.
Because of its alkaloid toxins, Scotch broom is now taken internally only under strict medical supervision. Children, especially, should be warned against picking and eating the toxic beans.
Once known only in Shelburne and Yarmouth Counties, it has now made its way northward into Hants and Halifax Counties, probably via earth-moving activities or vehicles.
Seeds, pods, and young leaves of lupine, black locust, acacia, broom, vetch, and other legumes. Toxicity will vary amongst species, from part to part in each plant, and with the seasons.
It all depends upon which plant the hapless victim eats. Lupinine, an alkaloid, is the chief poison of lupines, though they also contain dangerous enzyme inhibitors. The seeds, bark, and leaves of Scotch broom contain a similar toxin, as well as an alkaloid toxin similar to nicotine, but smoking it is not recommended.
Robinia (also known as black locust or locust tree) contains poisonous proteins called lectins, which interfere with food protein synthesis.
TYPICAL POISONING SCENARIO
Consumption of quantities of seeds by livestock or children. Though livestock in Nova Scotia seem unaffected by grazing plants in this family—lupines, for example—their milk becomes poisonous. It is associated with human and animal birth defects.
With children, the trouble is caused by the similarity of all these seeds and pods to those of edible beans and peas. Though lupine poisoning is rarely fatal, laburnum is—as few as 20 laburnum beans can kill a child. It is important to explain to children the danger of snacking on the beans of lupines, Scotch broom, Robinia, and laburnum. Safer yet, ban snacking on any wild seeds or fruit without first asking an adult.
Lupine and Scotch broom poisoning results in depressed heart and nervous systems and a consequent sensation of numbness, especially in the feet and hands. In particularly susceptible persons, death can occur from respiratory failure. The lectin in Robinia causes diarrhea, which can lead, in turn, to dehydration and shock. On the other hand, laburnum poisoning is marked by burning sensations in the mouth and abdomen, nausea, drowsiness, headache, and fever. In severe cases, the victim may experience hallucinations and convulsions, before slipping into a fatal coma.
SCOTCH BROOM POISON INFORMATION
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.