Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ecology: Ban the ‘suicide tree’?

When the whole world is talking about the importance of conserving existing trees and planting new one, the Indian Psychiatrists Society (IPS) has recommended that the government ban the ‘odollam’ (Cerbera odollam) tree.

Odollam which can grow to a height of over 10m is found in India and South Asian countries. It has beautiful fragrant white jasmine like flowers.

It grows wild in the Kerala State of India. All parts of the tree are toxic. The fruit which somewhat resembles mango is a killer. The kernel embedded in the fibrous pericarp is highly poisonous.

Reports show that odollam fruit is responsible for 50% of plant poisoning cases and 10% of all poisoning cases in the State. In Kerala there are about 100 suicide attempts every day out of which 26 persons die. This works out to three times the national average. Tragically, almost 80% of the suicide victims are in the 15-59 age group. (See:

In certain areas of Kerala, odollam appears to be the preferred means of suicide. It is easily available. No money is required to be spent to buy poison. No trip to the chemist or pesticide shop. Just pull out an odollam fruit from the tree, take out the kernel and consume it. So much so, odollam has come to be known as the ‘suicide tree’.

The local names for odollam tree in different places include kattu arali; famentana, kisopo, samanta, tangena, pong-pong, buta-buta, bintaro, nyan, othalam, othalanga, pilikirbir, dog-bane, chatthankai, chiute, grey milk wood and sea mango

A team from France's Laboratory of Analytical Toxicology says, "To the best of our knowledge, no plant in the world is responsible for as many deaths by suicide as the odollam tree."

Odollam is also considered as a perfect murder tool. The lethal toxin called cerberin contained in the kernel of the fruit stops the heart functions. It is difficult to establish odollam poisoning pathologically. This is particularly so in the Western countries where Cerebra odollam is hardly known.

In spite of its toxic properties, odollam is used in Ayurveda, folk and Siddha systems of medicine. In Ayurveda it is considered to be effective for management of skin diseases including ringworm, vata, and rabies. Bark, leaves, fruits, and latex are used for medicinal purpose.

I came across a report saying that odollam kernels are exported from Kerala through Tamil Nadu. Allegedly it is used for the manufacture of bio-insecticides and deodorants. The highly poisonous fruit is de-husked by women with their bare hands to collect the kernel. Whether the government has looked into this operation is not clear.

What do you think? Should the Cerebra odollam tree be banned?

Images: Top, from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Others from Olavipe, copyright reserved.

Also see: EARTH SAVE - Abraham Tharakan's Blog


Sunita said...

Excellent post!
However, I wish you wouldnt give 'the-powers-that-be' ideas for one more thing to ban.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Sunita. There must be some purpose for the 'suicide tree' too, in the scheme of things.

Jacob Matthan said...

Nature (or God) always has a reason for the status quo. Is this tree indigenous to Kerala or was it imported? Therein lies the answer. The tree, if indigenous, may be link in the entire fabric of eco interactivity. In our small town of Oulu some Finns brought the "poppeli" and lined the roads. Looked beautiful but in summer the white feather like dust is so terrible that now these tall trees are being now cut down as it has caused asthma in many local residents.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Jacob Matthan, you are right. If a tree is indigenous, it may be a link in the eco system.
On checking I find that odollam is a native of India, particularly the South.

Anonymous said...

if only 26 out of 100 die from taking this, then it can't be as lethal as sounds.

Vino Rayen said...

It would be more informative to mention the names of the places in Kerala where these trees are growing.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Vino Rayen, thank you for your comment. Odollam grows mostly in the sandy areas of Kerala as far as I know. I should have mentioned this in my post.

Anonymous said...

Don't ban.