Natural Poisons and Venoms: Plant Toxins: Terpenes and Steroids

Natural Poisons and Venoms: Plant Toxins: Terpenes and Steroids

Natural Poisons and Venoms: Plant Toxins: Terpenes and Steroids


Plants are not always as harmless as they seem. Some plants produce toxins that can be harmful or even deadly to humans and animals. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of plant toxins, specifically terpenes and steroids, and their role in natural poisons and venoms.

Terpenes: Nature’s Aromatic Compounds

Terpenes are a diverse group of organic compounds produced by plants. They are responsible for the characteristic scents and flavors of many plants, such as lavender, pine, and citrus fruits. However, not all terpenes are pleasant-smelling. Some terpenes have evolved to be toxic as a defense mechanism against herbivores.

Effects of Terpenes

Terpenes can have a range of effects on the human body. Some terpenes, like menthol, have a cooling and analgesic effect, making them useful in topical pain relief products. On the other hand, certain terpenes can be toxic when ingested or inhaled in high concentrations.

Toxic Terpenes

One well-known toxic terpene is thujone, which is found in plants like wormwood and sage. In high doses, thujone can cause convulsions and even hallucinations. Another toxic terpene is camphor, which is found in camphor laurel trees. Ingesting camphor can lead to nausea, vomiting, and seizures.

Steroids: More Than Just Muscle Builders

Steroids are a class of organic compounds that are found in both plants and animals. While they are often associated with muscle-building and performance-enhancing drugs, steroids also play a role in the plant kingdom as toxins.

Plant Steroids and Their Effects

Plant steroids, also known as phytosterols, can have various effects on the human body. Some phytosterols, like beta-sitosterol, have been found to have cholesterol-lowering properties and are used in dietary supplements. However, other plant steroids can be toxic.

Toxic Plant Steroids

One example of a toxic plant steroid is solanine, which is found in nightshade plants like tomatoes and potatoes. Ingesting solanine in large amounts can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis. Another toxic plant steroid is ricin, which is found in the seeds of the castor oil plant. Ricin is a potent toxin that can cause organ failure and death.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are all terpenes and steroids toxic?

A: No, not all terpenes and steroids are toxic. Many terpenes and steroids have beneficial effects and are used in various industries, such as medicine and cosmetics.

Q: Can terpenes and steroids be found in foods?

A: Yes, terpenes and steroids can be found in various foods. For example, terpenes contribute to the flavors and aromas of fruits and vegetables, while phytosterols are naturally present in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

Q: How can one avoid the toxic effects of terpenes and steroids?

A: To avoid the toxic effects of terpenes and steroids, it is important to be aware of the plants and foods that contain these compounds. Proper cooking and preparation methods can also help reduce the levels of toxins in food.


Terpenes and steroids are not just ordinary compounds found in plants. They have evolved to serve various purposes, including defense mechanisms against predators. While some terpenes and steroids have beneficial effects, others can be toxic when consumed in large amounts. Understanding the role of these compounds in natural poisons and venoms can help us appreciate the complexity of the plant kingdom and make informed choices about the plants we interact with.