Toxic and “Beautiful” Plants in Your Garden
There are toxic plants in almost everyone’s flower garden. Some of them may be your favorite blooms. But when the safety of your children and pets is concerned could your garden be beautiful without them?
What makes for a poisonous plant?
Plants have to defend themselves from predators (herbivores). They can’t move so they have evolved many chemical compounds that either taste bad or cause illness or death to predators. Almost all adult human plant poisoning is accidental and completely avoidable. Usually, we poison ourselves by eating a poison plant, or a part of the plant that’s toxic. We humans are a tad lazy when it comes to plant identification.
Dogs, cats, horses, and other livestock, on the other hand, just like to chew on plants and if it’s the wrong one, it could make them sick or be deadly. I have a friend who has a horse and she has to walk around the pasture checking for toxic plants because her horse will eat anything. She’s had the vet out a number of times. I don’t hear the same stories about other livestock, I’m not getting a horse, but maybe a goat.
Most poison plants are distasteful so we spit them out, vomit them up, or they cause diarrhea.
All the Rhododendron species including Azaleas have the toxin andromedotoxin which is related to turpentine. When we put any part of the plant in our mouth it gives a burning sensation and we spit it out immediately. That’s a great plant defense mechanism at work.
Chrysanthemums are the source of Pyrethrin, which is a natural insecticide. It affects the central nervous system of insects and if your kids or pets eat enough of a mum blossom or leaves it will affect their central nervous system also. Mums don’t taste particularly bad, just kind of grassy, so watch your kids around mums.
Anemones are another plant that you may have in your flower beds. It uses the chemical protoanemonin for protection. All parts of anemones are poisonous and it, like Azaleas, lets us know it’s not good for us. It has a very bitter taste. That’s a clue – if it tastes bad it’s probably not good for you.
There are many different chemical compounds plants use for protection. When we think of poison plants, we need to understand WHY they have the need to be toxic in the first place. Educating yourself and your children about which plants to avoid will make you more aware of the intricacies of the natural world.
Children are Curious - Toxic Plants are Just Plants
Children under the age of 6 years old become sick from toxic plants more than any other age group. According to calpoison.org “…eight out of 10 plant ingestions occur in young children.” But pets, farm animals, and even adults are exposed to plants that will make them ill every day. The best offense is knowing which plants in your landscape (and in your home) are toxic and which are not.
We buy field guides to birds, trees, edible plants and mushrooms, and even weeds. What better investment than a field guide to Poisonous Plants? Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas is in-depth with color photos. There are many online sources and apps to educate yourself on the toxicity of the plants in your landscape.
Take advantage of those resources and get your children involved. If you’ve got livestock the list of poisonous plants goes up because it includes all the toxic plants that make their way into pastures. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs has a good guide to toxic plants for all livestock.
When you get your children involved you create a knowledge base for the next generation. Besides, what child doesn’t like being the first to identify a “Poison” plant? Just make sure they look at the plant and don’t touch it. Have you experienced Stinging Nettles? Not deadly poisonous but painful for a short period of time. Your child will never forget Stinging Nettles once she brushes up against a plant.
Why Do Dogs and Cats Chew on Toxic Plants?
There are many theories but Dr. Justin Lee, DVM writes “…I feel like my cats are craving a different texture or the feel of fiber in their mouth.” She has a “sacrificial” spider plant inside for her cat to chew on (it’s not a toxic plant). Cat grass is a good alternative if you see your cat chewing plants. Be sure and get poison plants out of your cat’s reach. Depending on your cat this can take some ingenuity.
Do you bring flowers into the house to enjoy? If so, flower identification is absolutely necessary if you have a cat. Some of the best cut flowers such as larkspur, hydrangea, and foxglove, to name a few are very toxic to both humans and pets. Even the water in the vase will have toxins from the plant sap so wash it with soap and water after the bouquet has wilted. Be sure flower bouquets are out of reach of toddlers, inquisitive 6-year-olds, and your pets.
The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) has lists of Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants for dogs, cats, and horses so you can take a plant inventory and see if you think you should rearrange indoor plants, remove some outdoor plants, or take a closer look at your pasture.
There are many poison plants outdoors but few will kill a dog. Dogs are smart enough that they will vomit up anything that upsets their stomach. But not before that toxic plant material hasn’t started causing some gastrointestinal issues. And that doesn’t mean they are always aware of what they’re eating either.
Dogs like to dig. If you’ve got tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, or iris in your garden they are the prize from the dig. They are also very poisonous, causing intestinal issues, vomiting, diarrhea, and cardiac problems.
Dogs Don’t Dig Everywhere – Unless you Let Them
Be strategic about where you plant bulbs. Dogs usually have a few favorite “dig” places. Make sure those spots have non-toxic vegetation, which will get dug up by your pooch. But at least she won’t eat a daffodil bulb and you won’t have a vet bill.
I have found my dog doesn’t particularly like to dig on steep slopes, so I have beautiful drifts of color all season long where it’s difficult to mow. I feel like I’m getting double benefit. Beautiful color and no mowing. All the poison plants in my landscape are on slopes, including lilies, anemones, and the milkweed for the butterflies. All poisonous to my dog and cat, but beautiful to look at. I make sure my cat has cat grass but he’s a cat – I have less control. I think I’ll get a spider plant.
All Is Not Lost – Not All Plants Are Toxic
In fact, there are just as many non-toxic as toxic plants. It’s a matter of identification and determining how to create a safe landscape.
What About Your Kids and Poison Plants?
Anywhere your kids are going to be playing without adult supervision should be examined for toxic plants. There are so many beautiful non-toxic plants you can plant around your children’s play area that you’ll be hard pressed to decide which ones are the nicest.
Hint: It’s a child’s play area and kids can destroy just about anything by running around. Make the plants tough, inexpensive, and perhaps with edible fruits so your kids won’t run over them every time they’re playing tag. Also make sure they don’t have any sharp prickly thorns. Plants protect themselves with physical as well as chemical strategies.
Get your children involved in plant identification. You may be nurturing a botanist or entomologist. Because where there are plants there are bugs. Another way to get them involved in plants that aren’t toxic is to let them have their own vegetable or flower garden.
but your child will learn a great deal about the natural world. She will also learn that not everything happens immediately. Patience is a valuable lesson. Perhaps you’ll have a farmer or agronomist in the family.
The world of toxic plants can be daunting but with the right identification tools, close observation, and patience you will be able to decide which plants you want in your landscape and which ones you don’t. With a little effort some of the more poisonous vining plants can be replaced with cucumber, squash, and watermelon vines. The flowers are stunning, non-toxic, and the fruits are nutritious to eat. For the latest scoop on regenerative gardening and agriculture sign up for our newsletter (link on the right column).