Botanical Beasts: Poison in the Garden Botanical Beasts: Poison in the Garden

How does your garden grow? With lily of the valley, crown vetch or celandine? With bleeding heart, foxglove or castor bean? If so, than you should know about these and other poisonous botanical beasts, or rather, common plants that could endanger children or pets near your home. Some of the most beautiful and beloved garden plants are, in fact, quite poisonous, or at the very least, unpleasantly irritating to the skin. The following article discusses various garden and landscape plants that are dangerous in nature due to their toxic chemistry and effects.

In some cases, their common names give them away. Deadly nightshade, choke cherry, and death cap are not exactly the kind of thing you want to toss in your dinner salad. But then, knowing the names is only half the battle; gardeners must know the plant itself and why and how it is to function in the garden. Other names sound quite benign either because they sound pleasant or they are quite commonly known like poinsettia, white and yellow sweet clover, sweet pea or rhubarb. Yes - you’re thinking rhubarb pie. But in many cases, it is only a particular part of the plant that is poisonous, leaving the other parts harmless.

Without some experience, it is difficult to detect poisonous plants around your landscape because they quite naturally blend in with all the other foliage and grow quite like any other plant. Most poisonous plants or plant parts actually taste quite bitter, but one hopes it never comes to the point of tasting. Adults with sound garden sense will know better than to munch here and there in the shady nooks of the grounds, but children and pets simply cannot be trusted to understand the dangers. And besides, some poisonous plants like common nightshade taste quite sweet, and its appealing little berries simply beckon little fingers to pluck them up.

Is this a scare tactic to frighten you into cleansing your scenery from these botanical beasts? Not really. But each year approximately 100,000 people in the U.S. contact poison control centers about plant and mushroom exposures. Removal is also not the answer when it comes to poisonous plants - at least, one can not be completely sure that there is nothing left that is harmful once you’ve gotten rid of the obvious culprits. Often, poisonous plant lists are incomplete or something is simply unknown. Also, who knows what funny sort of mushroom might pop up overnight in your garden without you ever knowing? The best advice is to counsel children against tasting anything outdoors and watch very young children and pets closely when they are in your garden.

Poisonous plants differ from each other by the degree to which they are toxic, their parts that contain the toxicity as well as how that toxicity manifests in us. Some poisonous plants are deadly while others may only cause unpleasant symptoms. However, due to variations in people’s metabolism, age, body weight, etc., one never really can be sure how the poison will affect or to what degree.

Poisonous plants are classified in many ways based on their chemical make up or how they might affect an individual. However, knowing how plants are classified is not nearly as practical or important as knowing the identity of your landscape’s poisonous plants. When buying a new plant, ask at the time of purchase its potential risks for toxicity. If someone does ingest a suspect plant, gather as much helpful information for the poison center as you can such as part of the plant that was ingested: the size, the amount of seeds or fruit eaten, etc. Giving an accurate description of the plant in question is extremely important to determine a course of action.

It is also worth mentioning that apart from forbidding touching and tasting in the garden, cooking and concocting herbal remedies is also not for the amateur. While heating and cooking may destroy some of the poisonous parts, it is not likely to reduce anything to a benign status. And it is best to never eat a mushroom picked outdoors; leave such collecting of edible fungi to experts. If anyone ingests a mushroom on your premises, call the poison control center even if no symptoms are present - it may take hours for symptoms to appear.

Also be skeptical of packaged herbal remedies as government regulations are not required for packaging or the remedy’s claims. They may even produce harmful side effects. But, as this discussion pertains to residential gardens and landscapes, it is enough to monitor one’s own property and attempt to know the plants that grow there. Also, do not confuse hay fever with poison exposure. Many people suffer seasonal allergies that can be treated by a healthcare professional and many over the counter medicines.

Some examples of plant poisonings may produce any of the following:
  • skin irritation
  • stomach upset
  • liver damage
  • high blood pressure
  • trembling nausea
  • vomiting, convulsions
  • multi-organ failure
  • shock
  • hallucinations
  • coma
  • death

Finally, be aware if your garden contains any of the following plants that are highly toxic:

  • deadly nightshade
  • monkshood
  • rosary pea
  • horse chestnut
  • death angel mushrooms
  • prickly poppy
  • daphne
  • horsetail
  • foxglove
  • jessamine
  • locoweed
  • castor bean
  • eastern skunk cabbage
  • pokeweed
  • lupine
  • henbane
  • ground ivy
  • bracken fern
  • elderberry
  • bloodroot
  • oleander
  • mandrake
  • datura
  • laburnum
  • wisteria
  • several poppies

The fact that your garden may, and very probably, contains toxic plants should not cause you to immediately remove them. However, you may want to make sure they are not near where children play or pets roam. It’s also very wise to keep the number for your poison control center readily available and to keep some Syrup of Ipecac on hand - but use only on the advice of the poison center or your physician. While these botanical beasts may be toxic, some of their parts can actually be beneficial when extracted by experts. Many are also quite lovely. Knowing your plants and their chemistry is just another way to enjoy the complex components of nature - or at least that part of it which is your own backyard!

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