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Abrus precatorius (Umkhokha) – [Abrin Poison]

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Family: Fabaceae

Scientific name: Abrus precatorius

Authority: L.

Variation: subsp. africanus Verdc.

Common names: umkhokha (Zulu), rosary pea (English)

If you watch criminal investigation shows, then you’d know that homicides by poisoning are some of the hardest cases to solve. In the shows, arsenic and cyanide are the most commonly used chemicals for poisoning. Ricin is another commonly used deadly poison. But unlike arsenic and cyanide, ricin is a plant-based poison, a perfect murder weapon for environmentally conscious murders. Ricin poison comes from the seeds of the castor oil plant. A plant whose seeds are more potent than ricin is umkhokha.

Plant description

Umkhokha is a high-climbing woody vine. It is scientifically known as Abrus Precatorius. The genus name Abrus means delicate and describes the delicate leaflets. This genus is native to Africa, Madagascar, India, and China. It is one of the smaller genera with about 18 species with Precatorius as one of those species. The word Precatorius means petitioning or praying, referencing the fact that this plant’s seeds are used in making rosaries that are used by Roman Catholics and Buddhist to count prayers. The seeds of umkhokha are, in most cases, bright red and black in color, like ladybugs – the insects. However, the seeds can also be completely black or white or even green. 

Abrin description

The seeds of umkhokha are very poisonous when consumed by humans and animals.  They are so toxic that even chewing and swallowing half a seed can be fatal to a fully grown adult. That’s because the seeds contain a number of poisonous proteins, the most potent of these poisonous proteins is called abrin. Abrin is one of the deadliest poisons, it’s more deadly that ricin. For abrin to be fatal, a person must consume a dosage of about 90-to-120 mg. Abrin can be made into either a powder or mist, where it can be inhaled. It can also be made into a pellet and fired from a pellet gun. Addedly, it can be dissolved into a liquid and taken as an injection. When injected, abrin is 100 times more toxic than when taken orally. According to the CDC (the centres for disease control and prevention) accidental exposure to abrin is not possible, it takes deliberate actions for a person to be poisoned from abrin.  

Abrin symptoms

If for some reason you are poisoned, the onset of symptoms may be delayed from a few hours to a few days, this is also true for cases where the poison dose was very high. This means that after being poisoned, you won’t immediately know that you’ve been poisoned. When the symptoms eventually start to show, they may include abdominal and chest pain, fever, cough, nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, liver and bladder failure, convulsive seizure, bleeding from the eyes, and eventually death may result from cardiac or multi-organ failure within 1-to-5 days from exposure. How long it takes for a person to die from abrin poisoning will depend on how much poison was received and how the poison was received, as mentioned the poison may be inhaled, ingested, or injected.  

How abrin kills a person

What makes abrin so deadly is how it kills a person. Once inside the body, abrin goes to the cells and inhibits them from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins the cells begin to die. Cells in the body die every day through the biological mechanism called programmed cell death (or apoptosis). So, cell death is normal, it’s actually good for you. But you know what they say: “too much of a good thing will kill you”. And in the case of abrin, it literally kills you.

The downside of abrin

The lack of an antidote makes abrin even more deadly. This means, if you get poisoned, you are most probably going to die. If you suspect you’ve been poisoned with food, it is recommended that you try throwing up and then go to the hospital. Since there is no antidote, all that the hospital can do is give you supportive care to minimize the effect of the poison. This can be in the form of helping you breath by giving you oxygen. Basically, treating the symptoms as they show up.     

To make things worse, as if they weren’t bad enough. There is no medical test that can be done to definitively say that a person was killed with abrin. Meaning, if you get poisoned and die. The poison cannot be detected in your body, it is untraceable. The upside is that doctors can do DNA amplification, since abrin inhibits protein synthesis in the cell. Biology teaches that the DNA is responsible for making all the proteins in the body. Doctors can examine the DNA and the symptoms and deduce that you’ve been poisoned with abrin. It’s not the best approach but it’s better than being poisoned with succinylcholine. Succinylcholine makes a person’s death look like they died from a heart attack and after death, succinylcholine disappears from the body. Also, there are no tests to determine that the deceased person was poisoned with succinylcholine. In essence, succinylcholine makes a murder look like a natural cause. Obviously, the deceased person will need to have a documented history of heart problems because if they just drop dead from a heart attack out of the blue, it might look suspicious.


The seeds are only poisonous when uncooked or raw. When cooked or boiled in water or milk the seeds lose the poison and become harmless.

The harmless seeds are used by different groups of people in the following notable ways:

  • In the past, Indian goldsmiths used the seeds to weigh gold using the Ratti weight measurement. They did this because weight of the seeds, unlike other seeds, doesn’t change due to the water impermeable cover that prevents water from going in and out. This is probably the reason that umkhokha seeds are considered stable and can last for a long time even under extreme heat and cold conditions. The seeds are also made into a paste that is applied on the skin to treat dermatological ailments.
  • In China, the seeds are used as a symbol of love. The Chinese named the seeds ‘xiang si dou’ meaning “mutual love bean”. The deadliest seeds are a symbol of love in China. If you’ve ever wondered what love and death have in common, now you know.    
  • In Nigeria, the seeds are used to treat diarrhoea.
  • In the West Indies, the seeds are used to make bracelets that ward off evil spirits and the evil eye. 

It is said that in voodoo, when witches want to kill a person, they will make a voodoo doll or an effigy of their intended victim and in the place of the ears, they would put the seeds of umkhokha.

Besides the seeds, the leaves and roots of umkhokha are also used by different groups of people for various reasons:  

  • Indigenous African tribes use the seeds, roots, leaves, and flowers of umkhokha to treat ailments such as eye infections, stomach disorders, and snakebite. The extracts of abrin are also used to as an oral contraceptive. 
  • In South Africa, the leaves and roots are used to treat tuberculosis, bronchitis, whooping cough, chest complaints, and asthma. Zulu people use the roots and leaves to treat chest pain and as a love potion.   
  • In Tanzania, the leaves are used to make tea that treats epilepsy.
  • In Siddha medicine, the leaves are also used to make tea to treat fever, cough, and colds. The reason the leaves of umkhokha are used to make tea is because they have a sweet taste. 
  • In Zimbabwe, umkhokha is used to treat urinary schistosomiasis or bilharzia (a parasitic disease caused by flatworms).
  • In France, the stem and leaves are mixed in a concoction to treat diarrhoea and inflammation of the urinary tract.
  • In Jamaica, the roots have historically been used as a substitute for liquorice. That’s actually where the plant gets the English names, Indian liquorice and False liquorice


The different parts of umkhokha are prepared in various ways to treat the various ailments. Some of the simple preparation methods include:

  • Crush the leaves and add them to boiling water to prepare a steam bath to treat inflamed eyes.
  • Boil the seeds in milk and subsequently dry them. After drying, crush them into powder. Use the powder to make an emetic for inducing emesis (known as ukuphalaza in Zulu). 
  • Boil the seeds in milk and dry them. After drying, crush them into powder. Use the powder to make a nervine tonic (a tonic that you drink to improve the function of your nervous system). 

Besides having medicinal value, umkhokha is regarded as a valuable ornamental because of its attractive bright red and black seeds. Its leaves are consumed as vegetables in some parts of Africa. The seeds are used to decorate costumes and as lucky charms to protect against illness. In some parts of the world umkhokha is an invasive plant. While in other parts of the world it is a weed plant. For example, in the U.S state of Florida umkhokha is declared as Category 1 weed and in Cuba umkhokha is known to be invasive.

Buy Abrus precatorius (Umkhokha) seeds:…mkhokha-seeds-10/ 

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