You’re an explorer traveling through the South American Jungle. You stop to take a drink of water from a meandering stream. You hear something rustle in the bushes. You quickly look up in wonder. Suddenly you hear the whistle of an arrow gliding through the air. You feel an immense pain come over your body. You’ve just been pierced with a poison covered arrow. You feel your muscles start to relax and your breathing slow. Complete paralysis overcomes your body and you slowly slip into darkness. This is what you would experience if you came into deadly contact with the Curare plant.
Chondrdendron tomentosum is a plant commonly referred to as Curare. It resides in jungles of South America and is a species in the Menispermaceae family. This plant is a woody vine that climbs up towards the canopy. It has big leaves that stretch 6 to 8 inches long. These leaves are displayed in an alternate pattern. The top of the leave is smooth and green, while the bottom is lined with a white fuzz. There are also tiny white flowers that mature into small fleshy fruits (Chondrodendron, 2017).
Plants contain two groups of chemicals, primary and secondary metabolites. Primary metabolites are chemicals that ensure the plant grows and develops properly. Secondary metabolites have many different functions. Some secondary metabolite chemicals act as a defense system for the plant. Plants use these defenses to survive predators and their environment (Cambridge, 2000). Historically the curare plant was used to poison and kill people and animals. Curare is full of secondary metabolites called alkaloids. The type of alkaloid that curare possesses is called D-tubocuraine (C37H41N2O6+). Which acts as a neurotoxin that shuts down a nervous system. Curare uses this chemical as a defense to survive its environment. Indigenous South Americans like the Macushi tribes used this secondary metabolite to their advantage (Chondrodendron 2017; Milner 2009). They created a paste from the curare plants bark and lined their arrows with this poisonous substance (Stewart, 2009). The effects of D-tubocuraine were only seen when the plant entered into the bloodstream. Victims of the poison lined arrows would quickly enter paralysis and death followed soon after (Click here to learn more about the neurotoxin D-tubocuraine).
The curare plant wasn’t only used to kill. This plant soon raised the interest of European scientists in the mid-20th century who found a way to use its deadly neurotoxin as a muscle relaxant. This was an extremely useful tool to doctors when someone was under anesthesia. This plant gained popularity as the medical field expanded its horizons. Small doses of this plant allowed doctors to preform practices on their patients with no movement (Milner, 2009).
This unique plant has also been used for medicinal purposes throughout time. In parts of the South America Curare is considered a diuretic, fever reducer, and anti-inflammatory. It is also known to be used to treat edema, kidney stones and testicular inflammation (Chondrodendron, 2017). Curare continues to be used as a cure by many south American tribes (Milner, 2009).
Curare is a plant that began its journey as a poison that was used to kill. In the middle of the 20th century it was used as a “cure” in medicine. Later, as medicinal knowledge grew it was used as a natural remedy for many illnesses. Curare became a tool for humans that was versatile and important through out time. This plants defense system has intertwined with human nature to kill and to cure.
- Chondrodendron tomentosum. National Tropical Botanical Garden. 2017 [accessed 2017 Jan 26]. http://www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=2749
- Milner D. From the Rainforests of South America to the Operating Room: A History of Curare. From the Rainforests of South America to the Operating Room: A History of Curare. 2009 [accessed 2017 Jan 26]. http://www.med.uottawa.ca/historyofmedicine/hetenyi/milner.html
- Stewart A. 2009. Deadly. Wicked Plants. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. P. 3-6.
- Carl J, Schwarzer M, Klingelhoefer D, Ohlendorf D, Groneberg DA. Curare – A Curative Poison: A Scientometric Analysis. [Internet]. 2014;9(11).
- Balandrin MF, Klocke JA, Wurtele ES, Bollinger WH. Natural Plant Chemicals: Sources of Industrial and Medicinal Materials. [accessed 2017 Jan 18]. http://www.ciesin.org/docs/002-266/002-266.html
- Cambridge. The natural functions of secondary metabolites. Advances in biochemical engineering/biotechnology. 2000 [accessed 2017 Mar 9]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11036689