This evergreen tree is planted as an ornamental tree, providing plenty of shade. It has a beautiful appearance and white flowers with a jasmine scent. It also contains a poisonous milky sap and a potent toxin in the seeds, which when used for nefarious purposes, can cause death. Hence, this tree has earned the name "suicide tree".
Cerbera odollam is a plant species in the family Apocynaceae.
This family includes more than 4.5 thousand, and according to some even about 6 thousand species. Apocynaceae are found mainly in tropical and subtropical areas.
Cerbera odollam is native to the tropical regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
It grows in moist areas, coastal salt marshes in southern India, Madagascar and Southeast Asia.
The common names for Cerbera odollam is suicide tree, mintolla, pong-pong and othalam.
It has different common names depending on the region of occurrence. In Malay it is called othalam, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu - kattu arali, in Madagascar - famentana, kisopo, samanta or tangena and in South-East Asia - pong-pong, buta-buta, bintaro or nyan.
The plant spreads by fruit drifting in the water along the coast.
Cerbera is an evergreen tree reaching up to 15 m in height.
It has gray cracked bark and the crown of the tree is rounded. The thirty centimeter long leaves are oblong-ovate, dark green, glossy with a distinctly pointed tip.
The jasmine-scented flowers are white with a prominent yellow spot at the base of the petals.
The fruits look like unripe mangoes.
They are large egg-shaped drupes up to 10 cm long. Ripe fruits are dark red in color. After dropping, the skin of the fruit quickly darkens and disintegrates. The flesh is thick and fibrous, so the fruit floats easily and does not lose its ability to germinate.
The interior of the fruit contains an egg-shaped seed measuring about 2 x 1.5 cm.
It consists of two white fleshy halves. When exposed to air, the white kernel turns purple, then dark gray, and eventually brown or black.
Cerberus seeds contain a cardiac glycoside (digoxin-type cardenolide) called cerberin, which can cause death.
Cerberine blocks calcium ion channels in the heart muscle, causing cardiac dysfunction, usually fatal.
Cerberine is very difficult to detect at autopsy, so it is sometimes used in murders and suicides.
Its taste is easily masked by using aromatic spices.
Between 1989 and 1999, more than 500 cases of fatal cerberus poisoning were reported in the southwestern state of Kerala, India.
A lethal dose of the poison is contained in one kernel of the fruit and causes death within 1-2 days. Typical symptoms of poisoning include burning mouth, violent vomiting, irregular breathing, headache, irregular pulse, coma, and eventual death.
Until the 19th century, Cerbera seeds were used in Madagascar during the ordeals.
Ordeals were used in medieval trials, mainly criminal, but also in civil ones. They were used to clear of or confirm charges against a defendant. Ordeals were based on the assumption that God would not allow an innocent person to die. Those who survived the ordealswere acquitted of all charges.
Cerbera is often planted as an ornamental, screening or shade tree.
The lightweight and durable wood is used for boat building and in arts and crafts.
Fruits are used to produce bioinsecticides and deodorants.
Research has also been conducted on the use of cerbera seeds for biodiesel production.
Various parts of Cerbera are used in the production of drugs, as well as in folk medicine.
Extracts from the roots, leaves, and bark show antibacterial and diuretic effects.