In 2 Kings chapter 4, there is a story we just lived through ourselves:
“38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. And as the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Set on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. 40 And they poured out some for the men to eat. But while they were eating of the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. 41 He said, “Then bring flour.” And he threw it into the pot and said, “Pour some out for the men, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot.”
Yesterday I had big plans.
I was going to finish clearing and planting garden beds, string trim around my pumpkins down the hill, digs some new beds to plant yams… all kinds of wonderful things.
Instead, I ended up poisoned.
How, you may ask?
Luffas. I was poisoned by luffa gourds. And so was Rachel.
I showed off the luffa vines growing wild down the hill in a recent video on my YouTube channel:
When I was down there a few days ago harvesting cocoa, I snagged a couple of the young fruit to eat. Luffa are edible – and delicious when stir-fried – so long as you eat them young.
Or such has always been my experience.
On Saturday morning Rachel peeled and chopped them up with greens, corned beef and eggs to make a hash for breakfast.
Then we sat down to eat.
“Wow… this is bitter!” Rachel said. “Could the moringa be bitter?”
I tasted mine. It was excruciatingly bitter in flavor.
“I don’t know… I don’t think moringa ever gets bitter like this! Anything else in it?”
Rachel frowned. “A few other greens… I don’t know…”
I tried another bite. It was awful.
“Wait,” I said, “did you put the luffa in it?”
“Yes!” she said, “that must be it! But they were never bitter before!”
That’s true. We ate luffa back in Florida and it was delicious. Nothing like this.
I put hot sauce and ketchup on my portion and ate a few more bites. I’ve had bitter gourd before and figured this wouldn’t hurt us. I got about half-way through before giving up, but Rachel choked down her entire plate of food. We both hated to waste the eggs and corned beef, especially since I have to walk about 4 miles to go shopping.
This was a terrible mistake.
After breakfast we went outside and got to work on the garden. Rachel weeded and tilled up a bed and I took out a moringa tree which was growing in the wrong place.
By about 11AM I was feeling kind of weird and Rachel was ready to go inside.
Then as I tried to get a little work done at the computer, the pain hit. Wrenching stomach pain, and the bitterness of the morning’s breakfast was back in my mouth. I felt nauseous.
Breakfast was killing me.
About a half-hour after I got ill, Rachel started to get sick as well.
We rapidly deteriorated, taking alternate trips to the bathroom as everything in our systems was emptied violently from our bodies. I tried grinding and eating some charcoal but that didn’t seem to help.
I lay in bed and was wracked with chills despite the warm tropical breeze coming through the window. The older children were told to make their own lunch and dinner and share with the little ones, as Rachel and I could barely stand.
My head aching, stomach clenched, I searched the internet on my phone, looking for an answer. “Luffa poisoning” brought me to an article on poisons created by members of the cucurbit family, more specifically zucchini and cucumbers.
“Occasionally, a gardener will find a zucchini growing in their garden that is extremely bitter, as was the case in 2003 for one Dodge county, Nebraska gardener. Eating these vegetables caused severe stomach cramps and diarrhea that lasted several days. These symptoms were similar to 22 cases of human poisoning by bitter zucchini reported in Australia from 1981 to 1982, and in Alabama and California in 1984.”
Continuing to chase this rabbit hole downwards, I came to another article on the topic, this time a woman’s story that was way too similar to our own:
“I had been baffled by several of my meals being ruined by an awful, bitter taste – so bitter that a tiny bit left an awful taste in my mouth for quite some time afterwards. I wondered if the oil was rancid, I wondered what ingredient could possibly taste so awful.
Then finally, the culprit was revealed – the last ingredient was grated courgettes, and the dish went from lovely to appallingly bitter.
Loathe to throw out a big pan of food, I tried to eat around the courgettes and pick out the broad beans, but I had to admit, it tasted bitter beyond anything I wanted to eat, and eventually gave up. My partner refused to touch it.
I woke up around 3am with stomach cramps, diarrhoea, the same bitter taste in my mouth, and a pounding heart. I was quite worried, and my partner said I should look at the research he had done on bitter courgettes – it turns out they can contain a poison called Cucurbitacin E, which can develop if the plant is hybridised and/or water-stressed.”
Cucurbitacin Poisoning Nailed Us
That was it – curcurbitacin poisoning. Apparently, many of our cultivated vegetables from the broader cucumber family (which includes melons, squash and yes, luffa) have had the bitter toxins bred out of them.
Not so my jungle luffa.
And we were so stupid as to continue eating and trying to pick around the bits of luffa despite breakfast’s wretched flavor…
We paid for it. Though Rachel and I feel better today, we are by no means healthy again. Cucurbitacin poisoning is nasty stuff.
I always wondered about the story of Elisha and the toxic soup. The idea of there being a poisonous gourd struck me as odd, as I had never read anything about toxic members of the cucumber family. Maybe it was a mis-translation or something, I thought.
No, it was almost certainly cucurbitacin poisoning. Rachel and I had a mild case, compared to some that have occurred.
Curcurbitacin Poisoning Claims a Life
“Ludwig A. died in hospital two weeks after eating a courgette stew tainted with poison, Bild reported on Wednesday.
The courgettes were home-grown, and had been given to the pensioner and his wife Inge by neighbours at their Heidelberg home.
But neither the couple nor their neighbours were aware of the dangerous toxins hidden within the plants.
“The stew did taste bitter,” Inge A. told Bild. “But we’re used to bitter. We grow radishes in our garden, which also have this bitter taste.”
But shortly after eating the meal, the couple began to feel unwell.
“I had diarrhea, and had to be sick,” 80-year-old Inge said.
For her husband, things were even worse. “His face had turned completely yellow,” Inge remembered.
The pair were rushed to hospital, where they were diagnosed with severe poisoning.
80-year-old Inge gradually recovered, and was released from hospital after a few days. However, her husband had ingested so much of the poison that he later died.”
Cucurbitacin Poisoning in India
Another horror story comes from India, this time related to bottle gourd juice:
“KL Dargar, a 60-year-old native of Mehasana did not have anybody to warn him when he drank a glass of fresh bottle gourd (doodhi) juice. Dargar, had no reason to suspect the innocent looking doodhi, for he had been drinking a glass of doodhi juice on an empty stomach every morning for the last twenty years. But this time the healthy drink almost got him killed for he ignored the fact that the doodhi juice tasted bitter when he drank it.
In fact, experts say one needs to stay away from bitter bottle gourd, cucumber, squash, pumpkin and melon. These vegetables, which are considered one of the healthiest, belong to the cucurbitaceae family.
Cucurbitacins are complex compounds found in plants belonging to cucumber family.
The tetracyclic triterpinpoid cucurbitacins compounds are responsible for its bitterness and are highly toxic. A 1.2 mg dose of these toxic compounds is capable of killing a mouse. It can cause humans to vomit blood.” The last time when I drank freshly extracted bottle gourd juice, it tasted quite bitter. Usually the juice has no taste,” said Dargar. “Within minutes, I had severe stomach ache, and I started vomiting blood,” he said. Dargar said that the bottle gourd used for extracting the juice was as innocuous as any other. Within minutes of consuming the bitter juice Darga felt sweaty, dizzy and collapsed. He was rushed to the Apollo hospital’s emergency department.
Dr Shravan Bohra, chief gastroenterologist, at Apollo Hospitals, Ahmedabad, said, “We treated Dargar for a case of bottle gourd poisoning. He was also treated for blood vomiting.” Bohra said that an endoscopy revealed that his stomach was found to be bleeding profusely. “Some swelling and bleeding was also noticed in the upper small intestine. The state of the stomach was such as one would get to see if a person consumed acid used for toilet cleaning,” he said.”
Once I finish this post, I’m going back to bed. Rachel is already laying down again, after getting up and making some coffee.
This is miserable stuff. I never mess around with plants I believe are potentially poisonous – and I’m very careful with my mushroom hunting and have a whole stack of books on the topic.
Yet I poisoned myself with luffa. Luffa!
And I didn’t even have a prophet to perform a miracle.