Rosary Pea Poisoning

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 04, 2022
5 min read

Many plants out in the wild are similar in appearance, so it’s important to be careful while you’re out enjoying the great outdoors. Some harmless plants can look a lot like those that can be toxic to humans and pets. Others can be beautiful to the eye but shouldn’t be touched. One such plant is the rosary pea, also known as jequirity bean. Here’s what you need to know about rosary pea poisoning symptoms, treatment, and how to identify it in the wild.

The Abrus precatorius plant has several different names, including rosary pea, Indian licorice, and crab’s eye. This plant is a part of the pea family and is native to tropical regions of India and Asia. People sometimes grow rosary peas in areas outside of their native regions for decoration or other reasons, but in these cases, they're considered to be an invasive species.

The rosary pea plant is a slender, woody vine that climbs up surfaces. Even though it’s native to Asia, it’s known to be present in Australia, Africa, and warmer parts of the U.S. The vine has brightly colored seeds that can be spread by humans or birds. The seeds are red and shiny, with a black spot at the tip.

The rosary pea has a number of uses in different cultures. In some parts of Asia, people still use this plant in traditional medicine to treat common ailments like scratches, wounds, and sores. In the past, tribes in Africa and Asia used the rosary pea to treat illnesses like fever and malaria or as an oral contraceptive. Today, people use the rosary pea’s seeds to make necklaces and jewelry, including rosaries. People also use the beans to make folk instruments, like maracas.

The rosary pea plant is a high-climbing woody vine with slender branches. It grows by climbing over native plants and shrubs and takes over, which is why it can be classified as invasive. It grows very quickly and needs to have at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. This plant has even-pinnately compound leaves that contain between eight and 20 pairs of leaflets. These leaflets are oval in shape and can be between 1 and 1.3 centimeters in length.

The plant has flowers that resemble those of the pea plant. They're pale purple or lavender-colored but can sometimes be white. The flowers grow in short, dense clusters at the leaf axils. The rosary pea plant bears short, ovular pods that split open before falling to the ground. The pods contain between three to eight seeds each, which are usually around 7 millimeters long. They’re bright red with a black spot, which gives them the nickname "crab’s eye".

Rosary peas natively grow in grasslands, gallery forests, and at the edge of rainforests. Since they are now more widely distributed, these plants can also grow in pine rockland and along trails. They normally grow in low elevations but can be found up to 1,500 up in forests in Southeast Asia.

Rosary pea seeds are highly poisonous to humans and some animals, like cats, dogs, and horses. The seeds contain a natural poison called abrin, which is similar to ricin. The plant itself doesn’t cause a reaction in humans when you touch it, even though there is abrin in all parts of the plant. The highest concentration is inside the seed, which has a tough outer shell protecting you from the poison within.

To experience rosary pea poisoning, you have to thoroughly chew and swallow the seeds, breaking through the shell. Most people who accidentally swallow the seeds don’t have symptoms of poisoning since the shell is still intact. Chewing and swallowing multiple seeds can be lethal. Most cases of rosary pea poisoning happen through intentional digestion of the seeds or inhaling powder from ground seeds, as in traditional medicine.

There currently isn’t a minimum number of jequirity beans that are toxic, so any number that you ingest should be considered dangerous and toxic. Most people experience symptoms within a few hours of eating the seeds, but the onset can be delayed up to five days. Rosary pea poisoning symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting or abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea that can worsen and contain blood
  • Headache 
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Organ failure
  • Fever

Significant abrin exposure can cause multiple organs to shut down, like the liver, spleen, and kidneys. This is very serious and can result in death.

There's no antidote for abrin, so you should seek out medical care as soon as possible if you ingest rosary pea seeds. You can call your local poison control center or 911 for instructions. Once you're in the hospital, rosary pea poisoning treatment depends on your symptoms. If you swallowed the seeds very recently, your doctor can administer activated charcoal as a way to counteract the effects of the rosary pea seeds. Other medications can help treat symptoms like seizures and low blood pressure.

If you come into contact with the rosary pea plant in the wild, you most likely won’t experience any side effects from it. It’s still a good idea to wash the area with soap and warm water, using a wet cloth or sponge to thoroughly clean your skin.

You should wash any clothing that you think may have come into contact with abrin. Carefully remove it, trying to avoid the clothes coming into contact with your eyes or face. After taking off your clothes, wash your body with soap and water just to be safe.

Some people like to grow rosary peas for home landscaping. While the risk of poisoning is low if you know what these plants are, there are safer alternatives that you can grow in your garden to make sure people and animals in your area stay safe. Leather flower (Clematis crispa) and Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) are similar in appearance and are native to the US, so they're not considered to be invasive species. Neither is toxic to humans.