A bright flash of red caught my eye as I wandered a nearby park this afternoon. Upon closer inspection, the hard, cardinal-colored seeds reminded me of those from a plant I grew up with in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona; Coral Bean (Erythrina flabelliformis).
The Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) and Coral Bean do have a couple similarities; both are legumes and the interior of both their seeds is highly toxic. A major difference is that the Rosary Pea is not native to the states and the level of toxicity far surpasses that of the Coral Bean.
In fact, the abrin contained within is twice as potent as ricin (the chemical weapon of choice for assassinating people critical of the Russian government). As such, abrin is listed as a controlled substance under the Terrorism Act.
This should come as no surprise, but in 2014 a Florida man was arrested for selling abrin on an underground, terrorist website. It makes me wonder, do Florida men take an oath or something? “If it ain’t insanely stupid it ain’t worth doing!”
Now, how does something so dangerous get an innocuous sounding name like Rosary Pea? Well, it is quite attractive and the seeds have long been used for human ornamentation, including rosaries. In the West Indies the seeds are still worn to ward off evil spirits. Another, more utilitarian usage has been as a standard weight measurement since the seeds are so consistently sized.
As you can see, I collected a few (for decorative purposes only, I promise).