Green Scene

Behind Some Plants' Beauty Lurks Danger

2) Wisteria is beautiful and fragrant in flower, but ingesting a few seeds will cause extreme digestive problems. Photo credit: Sandra Leavitt Lerner
2) Wisteria is beautiful and fragrant in flower, but ingesting a few seeds will cause extreme digestive problems. Photo credit: Sandra Leavitt Lerner (Sandra Leavitt Lerner - Ftwp)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, April 11, 2009

When designing ornamental gardens, homeowners usually think about looking at the plants, not eating them. However, many plants can be poisonous. One of the most common ways young children are poisoned is by eating pretty berries or flowers that look like candy.

That means you should educate yourself about the plants you choose, and be careful where they are placed. For example, I wouldn't want to stop using hollies, azaleas or yews. But all have poisonous parts. In the case of hollies, their attractive red berries are an enticement to children. All parts of azaleas are poisonous; the berries and foliage on yews are extremely toxic to people and pets.

Did you ever wonder why wildlife doesn't eat particular spring flowering bulbs, such as the daffodil, the hyacinth, the autumn crocus, the snowdrop (galanthus) and the star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)? It's because they're toxic. Star-of-Bethlehem bulbs can be mistaken for spring onions or wild garlic. People have unknowingly eaten them. The symptoms of eating these bulbs are nervousness, a stomachache and other gastric distress.

Cherry tree twigs and foliage, both wild and cultivated, contain a compound that releases cyanide when chewed by people or livestock. So don't gnaw on the stick you use for roasting marshmallows.

Oleander is a very poisonous and common outdoor plant in the southern United States. Its branches are perfect for cooking hot dogs and marshmallows, and when limbs are pruned and used for this purpose, they kill or sicken people every year. Avoid the problem by learning what oleander looks like.

When the beautiful, fragrant hanging clusters of flowers fade on wisteria, a few of the seeds from the pods that form are all that it takes to cause extreme digestive problems.

Leaves and nectar of mountain laurel, which commonly grows in the Washington area's woods, can cause burning of the mouth, throat and stomach. Well-meaning individuals visiting zoos have caused serious sickness to animals by breaking a stem from a nearby shrub and feeding it to them. Animals can also get sick from eating boxwoods, azaleas or privets.

It's a plant collector's dream to have a Daphne, which emits a wonderful perfumed fragrance that drenches the air when it blooms in late winter. This plant graces the entries of garden centers in March, because its flowers and fragrance are attention getters. Warning, all parts can be extremely dangerous. The berries are very corrosive and will burn your mouth and digestive tract; even the sap can irritate your skin. Just a few berries can be fatal to a child.

And don't think your vegetable garden is exempt from poisonous plants. Eating potato and tomato plants can cause severe stomach and nervous system problems. Rhubarb is probably one of the most dangerous kitchen-garden plants. Its leaf has been responsible for many deaths because people think they can eat it. The only harmless part of rhubarb is the stalk of the leaf.

In spite of the possible extreme effects of these plants, I'm not advocating excluding them from your garden palette. In some situations, though, they should never be considered. Don't place toxic plants near a schoolyard, daycare center or other place where children play.

If you have children, take the safe approach indoors, too. Common houseplants that can have toxic effects include aloe, dieffenbachia, philodendron and calla lily. Also avoid these if you have pets that like to nibble on plants. Some houseplants that are safe to grow are African violets, begonias, spider plants, Swedish ivy, wandering Jew, snake plant, weeping figs, dracaenas and jade plants.

While we're on the subject of plants that cause distress, one of the most prevalent is poison ivy (Rhus radicans). It has pros and cons.

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