What is Derris?

Greer Hed

Derris is the common name used to refer to a number of species of the genus Derris and the family Fabaceae, also known as the bean or legume family. These plants are also referred to by the names tuba or tuba root and poison vine. Derris plants are climbing vines that contain a poisonous chemical called rotenone. The plants are often cultivated for this poison, which is used commercially as an insecticide. Some species of Derris plants are also considered to be invasive weeds that prey on trees like acacia and eucalyptus.

Derris can be found in jicama.
Derris can be found in jicama.

These plants are often parasitic, using large trees as hosts, which they climb and simultaneously strangle. Their vines can reach lengths of up to 52 feet (16 meters). Derris plants have small, sparse leaves called leaflets that are covered in tiny hairs. They also typically have flowers, usually pink or white in color, which are used to create bridal wreathes in some parts of southeast Asia. In the wild, the vines also grow oval fruits that resemble bright green pea pods. When cultivated commercially, the plants seldom produce fruit.

Rotenone from Derris plants can be used as an insecticide.
Rotenone from Derris plants can be used as an insecticide.

Derris vines are native to eastern and southeastern Asia, and grow wild in Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, China, and India. The plants are also grown for commercial reasons in many of these countries, and are also cultivated for use as insecticides and pesticides in America and parts of Africa. When Derris grows wild, it is usually found along roadsides, riverbanks, or on the outskirts of forested areas.

The poison found in most parts of these vines is called rotenone, a chemical that is also found in a number of other vine plants, such as the jicama and the barbasco. Due to the fact that it is not absorbed efficiently when applied to the skin or ingested, this toxin is relatively harmless to humans, although a large dose could be potentially fatal to a child. Rotenone is dangerous or fatal to many species of fish and insects because it deprives their cells of energy.

Due to its efficacy in killing insects, rotenone is often used as an insecticide. It is also sometimes used by fishermen to kill or temporarily immobilize fish and shellfish. The bodies of the stunned or dead fish then float to the surface of the water, making it easy for the fishermen to bring them in. This practice of using poison for fishing is illegal in many parts of the world due to its detrimental effects on the environment.

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