It's the Plants, Darling

Come into the garden, Maud—where DEATH awaits you!

Plant toxicity is apparently a concern for many. A commenter on a recent GWI post voiced strong concerns about Ricinus communis (castor bean, a dramatic annual I’ve been thinking of growing this summer). Not wishing to cause the demise of any curious animals or small children—as darkly prophesied in the comment—I turned to my reference library to assess the danger, and, yes, Botanica confirms that ingesting the seeds could cause death in small children. It also recommends full sun and fertile soil.

Further investigation into plant toxicity reveals that digitalis (foxglove) is also among the most deadly plants grown in the landscape, while wisteria, clematis, boxwood, and azalea can all cause accelerated heartbeat, vomiting, skin rashes, or other virulent symptoms. Indeed, according to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Desk Reference, there are at least forty commonly grown plants that can kill us, or at least make us very, very uncomfortable for a long period of time.

And therein lies the paradox. Clearly, most gardeners routinely grow poisonous plants. Some of them—like castor bean—are more rarely grown and thus have acquired more of a deadly mystique. I like the Desk Reference’s way of putting it: “Plants have not evolved to plague us … We humans are the intruders in their environments and we must find ways to coexist with them.”

The same book includes a cautionary list of common-sense strategies that help make sure plant poisoning never happens and then the usual advice on what to do if it does. The list is strongly reminiscent of the precautions families with children must follow to protect against the poisons in household cleaning substances.

I’m confident I can make sure no children eat any of my castor bean—or for that matter, my aconitum, colchicum, digitalis, or any of the other noxious cultivars I’ve been harboring. I’m not so sure I can stop passers-by from eating fallen horse chestnuts and thus incurring possible paralysis, or from going into convulsions after nibbling on any of the pokeweed that is rampant throughout our neighborhood. But I am almost positive of the unlikelihood of either of those events happening during my lifetime.

Plants have evolved certain strategies to ensure their survival in a hostile environment. So have humans—those are the ones that tend to concern me a bit more.

Posted by on January 31, 2007 at 5:04 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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12 Responses to “Come into the garden, Maud—where DEATH awaits you!”

  1. Glad you’re putting this issue in perspective. The only tricky thing about Ricinus is that the beans are very beautiful, and look extremely edible, so a gardener does need to be a little more careful about storing them than you might be with a daffodil bulb or a pinch of foxglove seeds. I heard once that the Castor beans were once used to make necklaces — which would certainly be problematic for a toddler. But a little common sense is all you need — and the plants, especially the red-leaved varieties, are great in the garden. And fast and inexpensive to grow.

  2. Mel Rimmer says:

    When we bought this house there were a number of potentially poisonous plants growing in the garden. They’re still there, and my small children never ate any of them – as I knew they wouldn’t. After all, they’re green and my children never eat anything green.

    You’d supervise very young children in the garden anyway, wouldn’t you? The pond is more of a risk than the plants, not to mention the tools unless you’re strict with yourself about putting everything away. And you’d just want to watch the little ones aren’t digging all your beds up. When they’re big enough to play unsupervised you can explain to them the rules about not picking things or eating them.

    Don’t listen to the complainer. Some people just have no perspective.

  3. Pam/Digging says:

    Parents who garden in Austin are often concerned about the seeds of Texas mountain laurel, which are lethal if ingested. It’s one of our most beautiful native trees, and I’ve always been determined to have one in my garden. Since I have young children, I’ve made it a point to frequently talk about plants with them. “Don’t put anything from the garden in your mouth without asking me first” is a good rule of thumb.

    It’s a great idea to talk about plants with your kids as you walk through gardens or the woods. They’ll remember it, and hopefully their knowledge about those toxic but beautiful plants will not only keep them safe but spark their interest in gardening.

  4. chuck b. says:

    If you’d like to add a verrry entertaining book on poisonous plants to your garden library, I recommend Plants Poisonous to People by Julia Morton.

  5. eliz. says:

    To Mel: Ha! Nice comment.

    Actually, I observe plenty of kids in my garden once a year, during Garden Walk. They seem quite bored. Once one of them asked me, “Why don’t you have a pond?”

    And ponds can be dangerous–actually I think it’s technically illegal in our city to have a pond deeper than 18 inches without a fence. One of those statutes that everyone (understandably) ignores.

  6. La Gringa says:

    Animals seem to have a sixth sense about poisonous plants. I grew castor bean in my Dallas garden for the tropical effect. My two little shitzus never showed any interest in it, even though they would jump straight up in the air to snatch a tomato from the vines in my raised beds.

    I imagine there are a lot of non-poisonous plants, herbs for example, that would be detrimental if a small child were to eat handfuls of it. It makes sense to watch your children and puppies when they are in the garden whether or not you have any poisonous plants.

    Here in the tropics (Honduras), I’m amazed at how many of the plants are poisonous. I have chickens and dogs now and it seems the animals have more knowledge about poisonous plants than we do!

    I would be more worried about my children and animals playing on a pesticide/herbicide laden lawn than eating a poisonous plant.

  7. Castor Beans are a rampant wild weed here that reach tree like proportions. They fling their seeds in all directions with exploding pods. I think something must eat them and live because they still come up from time to time in my garden with no nearby plants in seed flinging distance.

    In the twenty years I have lived here I have not heard or read about a single death by castor bean. Far more frequent is death by falling rocks, sometimes falling trees or falling out of trees, sharks and drowning is very common. Once some fool even sat on a blowhole and got sucked into the hole and killed in the receding wave.

    The day a castor bean becomes a desired plant for me is the day I will know my whole gardening world will have turned temperate.

  8. Jenn says:

    Thank you so much!

    I just grit my teeth when I hear someone going on about how they are going to rip all those ‘bad’ plants out of their garden, so their kiddies/ doggies/ kitties can be ‘safe.’

    Dogs and cats usually have enough sense to leave the poisonous things alone. If your pet insists on eating poisonous plants/ materials you should look to improving its diet, perhaps. Or maybe it’s trying to tell you something.

    Kids, on the other hand, need to be taught not to put everything they find in the outside world in their mouths. If they are too young to understand this, they are too young to be outside without adult supervision. What is wrong with folks?

    And kids that aren’t yours that are entering your yard and eating your poisonous plants? Gah!

    What is it with people? I’ve had two neighbors who think it’s cute that their kids are all over my property… the first one had a toddler that they left in the care of the 8 or 9 year old all day (who was also in charge of his 5 or 6 year old sister.) What is wrong with people?

    … the latest set of kids just want very badly to pet my adorable dogs. One of which has issues and bites anybody that he doesn’t know. The NO TRESSPASSING signs don’t seem to be doing any good. And they really *aren’t* the message I want to send, but I also don’t want to lose my dog to euthanasia because he bit some stupid unsupervised kid’s hand.

    *Jenn goes off, waving arms and ranting madly*

  9. Ellis Hollow says:

    Here in deer territory, toxicity isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

    Whenever I find out a plant is toxic to mammals, I want it because I know the deer aren’t going to eat it. Much.

    Castor beans are good here for filling in gaps through summer to frost. Ricin — the poison in the seeds — was used in a famous spy assassination. And ordering too much seed can get you investigated. Details and pix at my blog:
    http://www.remarc.com/craig/?p=8

  10. Reading Dirt says:

    Ironic, isn’t it, that people will go all quivery if they discover aconitum, castor bean, or other toxic plants in one’s garden, yet peek in their garages and you’re likely to find jars of highly potent neurotoxins in the form of pesticides and herbicides that they don’t give a second thought about.

    Besides, you can add azaleas, daffodils, bleeding hearts, delphiniums, sweet peas and lots of other common ornamentals to the list of toxic plants that young ‘uns shouldn’t be allowed to chew on.

  11. LISA LUYTEN says:

    I agree with nearly all of that, except there was a death of a child that had only handled aconitum a couple years ago in the Kitchener/Waterloo area. He hadn’t washed his hands and I guess ate later and ingested enough poison to kill him. So as much as I love the plant it had to go. In my garden the kids are all allowed to pick flowers (gasp) and decorate the shrubs and rocks with them. They know not to eat the plants, but I can’t say that everyone is diligent about washing hands after handling them. I still have foxgloves, hydrangeas, and delphiniums, but their level of toxicity isn’t as high from just handling.

  12. Hap says:

    Being a Cacti and succulent guy I am always getting calls from people that want amazing plants and whole gardens removed from their “new house” because they are afraid their kids will get hurt by spines. They seem less worried by poisonous plants and some of the Euphorbia are truly nasty. Tylecodon, weird, but wonderful relatives of Cotyledon are EXTREMELY poisonous. I grow mine in old bird cages, since just brushing against the plant can not only make you sick, but raise blisters and welts. Cool plants though!

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