Beautifully suspended in translucent amber, the fossilized flower was discovered in the Dominican Republic. And while its crystal-like preservation is mesmerizing, this 20-30 million-year-old specimen may have boasted poisonous characteristics.
Publishing in Nature Plants, Rutgers Univ. and Oregon State Univ. researchers have described the first fossilized specimen of a flower from the asterid family—a group that includes such edible plants as potatoes, pepper, coffee, mint, and rosemary, but also includes the genus Strychnos, members of which have helped create poisons, such as strychnine and curare.
Though reports of curare poison usage among native people from South America stems from the 16th century, geographer Alexander von Humboldt was the “first reliable eyewitness of curare preparation,” according to the Univ. of California, Los Angeles. After making the proper preparations, the poisonous mixture was used on the tips of darts that were fired through blowguns. The poison was capable of killing a bird within a couple of minutes, and large mammals (like tapirs) in 20 minutes.
Strychnine eventually was used in pesticides and rat poison.
Asterids are one of the largest family of plants, with 10 orders, 98 families, and about 80,000 species. According to the researchers, there are 200 extant species of Strychnos plants.
Species in this genus “are almost all toxic in some way,” said study author George Poinar, Jr., of Oregon State Univ. “Each plant has its own alkaloids with varying effects. Some are more toxic than others, and it may be that they were successful because their poisons offered some defense against herbivores. Today some of these toxins have been shown to possess useful and even medicinal properties.”
According to Poinar, the fossilized flower budded from a plant, which lived in “a steamy tropical forest.”
“Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past,” said Poinar. “It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago.”
The researchers gave the new flower the name Strychnos electri.