Plant Structure, Function, and Use

Plant Uses

What plant native to Central and South America can be used as both a poison and a healing remedy?

Skunk cabbage (Spathyema foetidus) blooms while snow is still on the ground. The root of the plant acts like a metabolic furnace, providing heat to the flowering shoot and melting the surrounding snow as it pushes up through the frozen ground. Plant botanists have been unable to identify the cause of this phenomenon. Different theories have been proposed, with some experts believing it is a special adaptation for the cold-weather climate and others speculating that it is an evolutionary remnant feature of a tropical plant.

Common Name

Scientific Name

Part of Plant Used


Black walnut

Juglans nigra


Dark brown, black



Flower heads




Purple flowers


Red cabbage

Brassica oleracea-capitata

Outer leaves

Blue, lavender


Curcuma longa



Yellow onion

Allium cepa

Brown, outer leaves

Burnt orange

Chondrodendron tomentosum, a plant that produces the poison called curare, has properties that are both healing and poisonous. In both Central and South America, the plant has been used by many different Indian tribes to develop a poisonous mixture. The poisonous stems and roots of the plant are crushed and cooked until taking on a syrupy consistency. Indian tribes often dipped the tips of arrows and other weapons into the poisonous paste before battle. However, the root of the vine also has healing properties. In Brazil, especially, it is used as a diuretic and fever reducer and is commonly used to treat tissue inflammation, kidney stones, bruises, contusions, and edema.


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