What is Abrus?

Sara Schmidt

Fabaceae, or pea family plants, include a flowering genus known as abrus. These types of plants feature slender, twining stems with purple to pink flowers. The roots and seeds of these plants are also used in herbal medicine treatments.

Abrus seeds are often used to make rosary beads.
Abrus seeds are often used to make rosary beads.

Thirteen different species make up this genus. They can all be found in tropical parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In India, the plants are often employed in both culinary and medicinal uses. One name used for abrus, Indian licorice, was given to the plant due to its use as a licorice substitute in the country. Other names for the plant include crab's eye, Akar Saga, the John Crow bead, and the Precatory bean.

Abrus seeds look like ladybugs.
Abrus seeds look like ladybugs.

Plants of this genus typically grow wild in deciduous forests. They feature winding vine-like stems with alternate-facing leaves and feather-like leaflets. Flowers are small and pale, delicately drooping off the plants. The plant prefers shady areas and moist soil for optimal growth.

Abrus seeds resemble plastic ladybugs. They are red with a small black tip. Though they are toxic and should never be consumed, the shiny seeds are often used in making jewelry, and other crafts. They are also used in making rosaries for religions purposes, a trait that led the plant to being called the rosary pea. If swallowed, these seeds can cause death.

Native tribes found in remote regions of India utilize abrus plants for many different uses. Its seeds are made into unique tribal ornaments, often used for costumes worn during festivals. Like herbalists throughout the country, tribes also use it for its medicinal properties. Many believe that it can be used as an aphrodisiac.

In traditional Indian medicine, abrus is used to treat a wide variety of conditions. The plant's antimicrobial properties make it useful in killing fungus and bacteria. Minor skin irritations, such as scratches or sores, may be healed by using the herbal treatment. Abrus may be useful in treating fevers, diarrhea, and other common ailments. It has also been used to induce abortion.

Pea plants of this type are imported and grown in North America for ornamental use in gardens. Due to this cultivation, the plants have become an invasive species in many areas. It has been labeled a threat to many native plant species as it has the ability to grow over and kill other native species. The genus is also difficult to remove once established in its habitat.

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