Cerbera Odollam Tree Poisoning

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 02, 2022
4 min read

The Cerbera odollam tree, also known as the “suicide tree,” is one of the most poisonous plants present in Asia. Eating its seeds has a high chance of leading to death, so detecting the symptoms it causes and getting urgent medical care is essential for avoiding a catastrophe. Here’s what you need to know.

Cerbera odollam is a medium-sized tree native to India and Singapore. It’s also present in some forests and shorelines — particularly those near the Pacific Ocean. Typically used as a shade tree, Cerbera odollam has recently gained popularity as an ornamental plant in gardens and parks.

A typical Cerbera odollam tree grows about 12 meters tall with a gray and knobbly trunk.  Its crown is usually bushy, and its white flowers are known for their beauty and fragrance. The Cerbera odollam leaves are elliptic and green, often turning orange before dying and falling off the tree.

Its fruit is red, smooth, and round, bearing some similarity to an apple. When opened, it presents a fibrous husk and thin outer pulp that some specific bird species eat. At its core, it contains a highly toxic large seed that gives the tree its infamous name.

Cerbera odollam is more commonly known as the “suicide tree” due to its extreme toxicity. It’s a particularly prevalent cause of death in India, being involved in over 500 deaths in the span between 1989 to 1999. However, a recent case of Cerbera odollam poisoning in the US has brought this plant to the national spotlight.

The Cerbera odollam tree is relatively normal-looking, making it hard to identify from a distance. However, its distinctive flowers and seeds allow you to quickly pinpoint it upon closer inspection.

Its prominent flowers are white and have five small petals. At their center, the flowers possess a small yellow hole that’s similar to an eye. Its strong, sweet fragrance is often described as jasmine-like.

On the other hand, as we already mentioned, the suicide tree bears a fruit similar to an apple. These fruits ripen from green to brownish-black, showing a reddish-purple color at their mature stage. Curiously, Cerbera odollam fruits can float on water thanks to their buoyant husk.

Cerbera odollam is a highly poisonous tree, causing death in most cases of ingestion. However, the only toxic part is its seeds, which have devastating effects when ingested. Otherwise, the plant isn’t harmful to the touch or the nose.

Because of its low distribution in the United States, the exact mortality rate after ingesting a Cerbera odollam seed is unknown. Research suggests that most suicide tree poisoning cases will result in death in as little as four hours after ingestion.

Recent studies also show that treatment is possible when it comes to Cerbera odollam poisoning. The success rate is highly variable, however, mostly depending on the severity of the intoxication and how much time passed between ingestion and arrival at the hospital.

In any case, eating Cerbera odollam seeds is extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. If you’re ever in a situation where you accidentally eat these seeds, call the emergency services immediately.

Cerbera odollam poisoning occurs primarily due to a toxin called cerberin, which affects the cardiovascular system. Experts suggest that cerberin causes a decrease in heart rate due to chemical imbalances. 

While research is still inconclusive, a close examination of 50 Cerbera odollam poisoning cases shows that death usually occurs within three to six hours after ingestion. Eating as little as half a seed could be fatal — although this depends on a person's body mass.

Even though the specific cerberin poisoning symptoms vary from person to person, experts have been able to establish some general guidelines. These are the most common signs that you have been poisoned with cerberin:

Most people won’t notice any of these symptoms (besides nausea and vomiting) on their own. Instead, medical studies are required to determine if you have any of these symptoms. In addition, it’s unclear how much time it takes for these signs to appear, so if you suspect you may have eaten suicide tree seeds, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

If you realize that you’ve eaten Cerbera odollam seed, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Even if you haven’t ingested an entire kernel, getting medical care early can make a difference.

Due to the lack of research, there isn’t an established timeline that indicates how the symptoms will appear or in what order. Similarly, there aren’t any known guidelines regarding the progression of the symptoms after ingesting a suicide tree seed.

Recent studies suggest that getting to the hospital in time could help you reduce your chances of dying to about 12%. Once there, doctors will lead you to an intensive care unit and put you on continuous cardiac monitoring. They’ll also use specific medications to try to counteract the chemical imbalances caused by the Cerbera odollam kernel.

Luckily, there aren’t any safe plants that can be confused with Cerbera odollam. Instead, the suicide tree is often mixed up with another plant of the same family — the oleander. This plant is also very toxic, meaning that you should avoid any plant with Cerbera odollam-like characteristics.

The main difference between these two plants is that the oleander is usually shorter, only growing to be about 2 meters high. The oleander is also toxic to the touch, causing skin irritation. Furthermore, all parts of the oleander are poisonous.

If you ever find yourself near a Cerbera odollam or oleander, make sure to stay away to avoid any poisoning possibilities. If you ingest a suicide tree seed, call 911 immediately and get to the hospital as soon as possible.