Murder by glory lily

Glory lilies are not lilies. They should rightly be called Gloriosa superba. They belong, along with 10 other species, to the genus Gloriosa, which, in turn, lies in the family of crocuses, Colchicaceae. Lilies, on the other hand, belong to the family Liliaceae. Why do glory lilies look so much like lilies then? Not a far-fetched accident, really. Colchicaceae and Liliaceae both originate from a single parent plant, around 117 million years ago, in the early Cretaceous period. This parent was old enough to be one of the earliest flowering plants, and lived at the same time as the early ceratop and theropod dinosaurs. Yes, you are right, I’ve gone off topic. What is really the difference between lilies and the crocuses, you ask? All plants in the latter group contain colchicine, a widely used medicinal drug, and doctors know that overdoses of colchicine can be fatal.

So I was not completely surprised to find in a medical journal an article titled “A rare case of attempted homicide with Gloriosa superba.” It seems that in Sri Lanka it is common to have a tea made with coriander seeds, a condiment all south Asians will have in their kitchen. Apparently, one day in 2016, a man was brought into a hospital in Colombo with diarrhea and profuse vomiting. He went into shock. His hair fell off, and he developed trouble breathing. So much so, that he had to be put on a respirator. The attending physicians might have been flummoxed by the symptoms, had the family not brought the pot in which his tea was brewed.

It seems that the man’s sister in law was missing from the house after she made the tea. Seeing the man in distress, his wife took a small amount of tea to test it, and developed milder symptoms of poisoning. The rest of the family identified glory lily seeds mixed in which coriander seeds in the pot, and brought it along to the hospital. The journal article contains more details of the symptoms and treatment, and nothing else about the crime. The means and opportunity are reasonably clear. But the motive? And the resolution? It is all left to your imagination, gentle reader.

The plant grows wild in the Sahyadris, and in other parts of India and Sri Lanka. It is also a fairly popular garden plant, with several cultivars available. All of them are perennial vines which grow from tubers that sprout up to six stems every spring, some of which are stiff enough to be upright and can grow up to 4 meters in height. The one I saw was half that. The lance-shaped leaves grow opposite each other or in a whorl around the stem (as you can see in the wide-angle shot). The tips of the leaves can wind around support to pull the vine up. Here it has climbed over a lantana bush. I’ve only seen them flowering during the monsoon, but my experience is limited. The flowers are either solitary, or appear, as here, in a group of a few. The 6-7 cm long petals start off in yellow and orange, aging to a deeper red. The 6 stamens appear in a ring around the bottom of the flower, just above the green ovary, from which a single style juts far away. The distance between the style and stamens prevents frequent self pollination. You can see that the flowers in this cluster were all at different ages. This is reportedly common, and is a also strategy to minimize the chances of self-pollination. Contrarily, studies show that fertile seed production is higher if they are self-pollinated by hand than if they are cross-pollinated. It’s natural pollinators are not documented, so if you see one, perhaps a sunbird or a large butterfly, make sure you take a photo.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


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