When one hears the word lottery (lotería in Spanish) mentioned, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the game of chance. However, in this case I am not talking about the traditional lottery but a type of popular plant that adorns many Costa Rica homes.
The scientific name for it is Dieffenbachia. It is also known as the “Mother-in-law” plant. Dieffenbachia was named by Heinrich Wilhelm Schoot, the Director of the Botanical Gardens in Vienna, to honor his head gardener Joseph Dieffenbach (1796–1863).
In Costa Rica the plant is called lotería (lottery) because people try to find a pattern on its leaves that has the shape of a lucky number which they then use to play the lottery. It is said that this tradition of trying to find luck numbers dates back to the fourteenth century.
Few know that this common houseplant is toxic and can be harmful for humans. However, these effects are rarely life-threatening but in a few rare cases they can cause an allergic reaction that kills.
The cells of the Dieffenbachia plant contain needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals called raphides. If a leaf is chewed, these crystals can cause a temporary burning sensation and erythema. In a few cases, edema of tissues exposed to the plant has been reported. Mastication and ingestion generally result in only mild symptoms. With both children and pets, contact with dieffenbachia (typically from chewing) can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms, including oral irritation, excessive drooling, and localized swelling. In most cases, symptoms are mild, and can be successfully treated with analgesic agents, antihistamines, or medical charcoal.
Experts in Costa Rica say that when a child puts the plant in its mouth the first thing that should be done is to take a cloth to remove the pieces that are in the child’s mouth. Next, wash the the child’s mouth three times and then brush his or her teeth. If swelling occurs then take the child to see a doctor.
Last year there were twenty people who were adversely affected by the lotería plant in Costa Rica.