It's the Plants, Darling

To Label or Not to Label?

I’ve been on the road talking about wicked plants for a month, and what a long, strange trip it’s been.  People gave me necklaces of poisonous seeds after learning at my talk that their jewelry was deadly and deciding they didn’t want them around anymore. People shared their plant poisoning horror stories. And lots of people asked me this question:  Why don’t garden centers identify poisonous plants?

It’s a perfectly reasonable question.  If you’re a dog owner and you come home (as one woman who just e-mailed me described) and find that your dog has nibbled the fronds of your lovely new houseplant, and then you find out that the lovely new houseplant is a sago palm, which is highly toxic to dogs, and then you rush your dog to the vet where he spends three days in intensive care and just barely survives–well, if that happened to you, you might just wish there had been a warning label at the garden center.

But look at it from the perspective of the garden center owner.  Most of the plants you sell are not edible.  With the exception of the veggie starts and the herbs and fruit trees, almost everything you sell is not food.  Don’t eat any of it, you might tell your customers.  Don’t eat the shrubs or the trees or the shovels or the rakes or the fertilizer or the bug spray.  This is not food.

From that perspective, a garden center is not too different from, say, an office supply store or a drugstore.  Does a shopkeeper really have to go around and put poison labels on the batteries, the bandages, the dish soap, the pens, and the printer cartridges?  None of those things are food, and it’s assumed that you won’t eat them.

And here’s the real question.  Where does it end?  Maybe our well-meaning garden center owner puts a warning label on the sago palm (poisonous to dogs), the lilies (toxic to cats) and the most deadly human poisons, like castor bean, monkshood, daphne, lantana, etc.  But does that mean that any plant without a poison label is guaranteed to be safe?  Would the garden center owner have to worry about getting sued for failing to properly label a plant?

And what if a new plant comes into the garden center and there’s simply not any reliable information yet on its toxicity?

Would it be enough to post a broad disclaimer explaining that just because a plant is not labeled, don’t assume you can eat it?

Would it be enough to offer a shelf of reference books and brochures that list poisonous plants so people can look them up?

And–would garden centers (or the growers who supply the plants, with labels, to garden centers) be more likely to try some common-sense labeling if there was one agreed-upon industry-wide list of plants that should come with a label?  That way each individual store isn’t having to figure it out for themselves, and maybe they’d be less likely to be the target of blame as long as they adhered to the list.

I include some links to poisonous plant references on my website, but as you can imagine, it’s hard to come up with one list that works all over the country and contains enough information for people to make informed choices.  For instance, this list contains hydrangea and foxglove along with deadly nightshade, castor bean, water hemlock, and poison ivy.  But it doesn’t tell you exactly how poisonous each plant is, and of course something like poison ivy isn’t going to be sold at a garden center anyway.

The California poison control center sells a poisonous plant poster and the Texas poison control network lists some common Texas plants that could be toxic.

But are these lists good enough for a garden center owner?

Or should it just be” gardener beware”?

Below:  a photo of my poison garden, and a couple of the rest of the garden.  As you can see, it’s been at its crazy, overgrown peak all month while I’ve been on the road.

Poisongarden

Flowergarden

Sidegarden

Posted by on June 26, 2009 at 4:56 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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27 responses to “To Label or Not to Label?”

  1. katy says:

    Certainly there is an amount of personal responsibility that comes along with any purchase, whether it’s a plant or a knife. (meaning, don’t eat it & be careful: it’s sharp, respectively).

    However, not all plants are labelled (my own personal pet peeve), especially houseplants in my experience. I don’t know whether the grower/wholesaler didn’t stick the tag in or if it fell out at the garden center. Annnoying. But it’s quite possible to buy a generic looking houseplant & have no idea what it is.

    It would be nice if garden centers and nurserys had a handout listing non-edible plants that can be toxic to pets in any quantities. This list could certainly be limited to what they themselves stock.

    I think there are hoards of pet-owning gardeners that would gladly flock to a plant purveyor that both raises awareness of plant toxicity (I don’t think most gardeners take that into account when planning their beds) and provides information on what they sell.

  2. tai haku says:

    The cycad mailing list just dealt with this exact issue oddly enough. A petition was doing the rounds along the lines of “my dog died horribly after eating sago palm – please make it a law that these death traps be labelled”. As you well know cycads are far from unique in their toxicity and the arguments put forwards agaisnt such a move went along exactly the lines above – where to stop, how complete can such a list ever be, how much of a burden would it be for garden centres and so forth.

  3. John says:

    If garden centers only sold non-toxic plants they could reduce their inventory down to just one bench of material. The list of toxic plants to humans is massive and constantly growing, when you add toxic to pets into the mix you take things to a whole new level. The first step is to back way up and start at a clear and universal definition of “toxic”. Then you have to teach every human on the planet to clearly understand what it means and then you have to convince them to behave responsibly with their new found knowledge. Good luck wid dat!

    The core of this problem is clearly pointed out in your prime example plant – Sago Palm. It isn’t even a palm, and there are two completely unrelated plants with the same common name and only one of them is toxic. Scientific nomenclature can’t even offer a solution since so many plants are named after famous explorers or nobility.

    I say scrap the whole system and start over but then I am often the tiny voice in the back of the room.

  4. joanne says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy – it’s something that’s been on my mind lately, as we are moving out of a rental house we’ve occupied for 9 years in a few short weeks. I haven’t yet done anything about the garden plan I want to leave for the next tenant (was too busy digging out plants), but it is something I want to do, and not least because there are quite a few plants in my garden that are poisonous. If nothing else, I want to leave a map, with the botanical name, and a little Mr. Yuk next to them, so the new tenants – particularly if they have kids – can look them up. It’s not so much the violation of the ‘well, it’s not food, don’t eat it’ tenet, but the accidental ingestion that I worry about. Lily of the valley, for instance – low to the ground like children, with enticing red-orange berries that probably look like candy to a toddler. I’d like to think I am giving them a headstart by providing the botanical information, but it’s ultimately up to the gardener to learn about what’s in the garden or the garden center.

  5. Rebecca says:

    While I think its good to know what plants are poisonous, I don’t think its the responsibility of the garden center. Some poisonous plants are beautiful, will deter certain pests, and won’t get eaten by deer.

    If someone is really concerned about getting a plant that will poison their pet or child, they should find one of the smaller local greenhouses, or shops. They will identify the plants that will be ok, even if your climbing toddler somehow gets on top of the fridge and tastes it.

    Besides, you don’t see warnings saying this delightful chocolate bar is poisonous to dogs. Anyone that is serious about their pet will learn to not feed the dog chocolate even if they have a horrible experience to learn that, and they will not buy the Sago Palm. I bet the lady in the example will never have another dog get poisoned by the Sego Palm.

  6. I agree that you should conclude by comon sense that if a plant is not sold as an edible or hern than it is NOT edible. Yeesh, how hard is that? No labeling needed.

    Everyone reacts differently and also reactions can depend on amount consumed. Lesson: don’t eat it.

  7. Eliz says:

    The world is full of dangers and there is no way to label them all. Leave the plants alone.

    I would like to see garden centers stop automatically recommending weed ‘n’ feed and all their other insecticides, fungicides, etc. and make more of an attempt to push the alternatives. Now that would be nice.

  8. Hope says:

    As a pet owner, I have always assumed it was my responsibility to make sure I knew what I was growing, and what could harm my pets. Not the nursery or whatever. To that end, however, I agree with the poster who complains that it is often difficult to know what they are buying. All my houseplants have been mislabeled or just unlabeled when I bought them.

  9. There’s also, pure and simple, the fact that most people, if you tell them a plant is toxic, won’t buy the plant. Which is a lot of incentive right there for garden centers not to bother with toxicity warnings: it’s in their interest to sell the plants, and the odds of anybody eating any given plant are pretty small anyway, so why bother labeling everything? It’s just that much more work in order to sell that many fewer plants.

    It’s also just as hard for a garden center employee to come by good information about plant toxicity as it is for anybody else, which means that even when we had a toxicity list to work from, it wasn’t always clear what animals the warnings applied to, or how serious they were, or etc., plus sometimes the lists contradicted one another or used unknown common names or whatever. So even if you really wanted to provide the best information possible, with the resulting drop in sales, you couldn’t always do it.

    I did try to come up with a semi-comprehensive list of houseplant toxicities on my own, arranged according to degree of severity, which interested readers may find diverting. (It pleased me to learn that nothing in Amy’s book directly contradicted anything I had in the posts.)

    Introduction to the toxicity lists: http://short.to/hlkx

  10. Hap says:

    I regularly warn my customers that all Euphorbia have nasty sap, Cycads should not be in reach of “nibbly dogs”, the reason most Crassulaceae are “Deer Resistant” is because they are toxic to various degrees… and Agaves have caustic sap until fire roasted, so wear eye protection and long sleeves if they are going to prune their overgrown, poorly situated Agave americana.

    Giving free plant and garden education is the best tool we have to make us stand out as the place to come for locally grown, climate appropriate plants. It is the reason we label every pot with the latin name and our website so they can look them up and learn even more.

    A lot of our plants are poisonous, toxic and “ethno-botanical” and we regularly have to tell people “that No! The Euporbia obesa are not Peyote (Lophophora are illegal and we do not sell them) and if they eat Euphorbia obesa they will not get high, but likely die….”

    We only put out our Tylecodon plants on the sales floor securely locked in bird cages. It is a great way to draw interest, educate our customers and a fun visual way to tell the customers that these cool looking plants are not to be handled without gloves and are for serious collectors only!

    We do the same thing with our Cylindropuntia bigelovii (Teddy Bear Cholla) but that is to protect the plants from people that just “need to touch them to see if they really do jump”… warning signs didn’t do the trick and having customers with barbed spines and often the whole uprooted plant hanging from their fingers is just too distracting for the other customers….

  11. Liisa says:

    Some people are incredibly allergic to lavender and rosemary — there’s no warning tags for those plants. Habaneros are super spicy, but there were no warnings on the seed packet I bought about not rubbing your eyes when preparing the peppers (or handling the seeds). At what point do we take responsibility for what we do and what we decide to own? My parents’ yard was filled with plants that were not meant to be ingested — some poisonous, some just yucky. We were taught that you don’t go putting things in your mouth for the heck of it.

    I don’t know — this kind of nannying makes me sound like an old person. ‘In my days, people didn’t eat plants in the garden’

  12. easy : personal responsibility.

  13. Karen says:

    It’s tough gardening with kids and pets, you have extra responsibility and vigilance that others don’t have to worry about so much. I did away with houseplants entirely after I found my cat liked to “prune” them (luckily peace lily didn’t seem to be toxic, but don’t quote me there). Then I had the nightmare of policing my very-prone-to-putting-things-in-her-mouth daughter in a backyard planted with lily of the valley, iris, rhododendron, golden chain tree, hellebores and other bad stuff. I have had to tell her over and over and over that she shouldn’t pick or eat anything unless I’m there to tell her it’s safe. She is learning, gradually – at age 6, she can already ID far more plants than I could at age 25. She knows that lavender buds are edible but foxglove are not, calendula flowers are okay but sweet peas aren’t, etc. It’s up to us to educate our own kids and protect our pets, I think. Just my .02 here.

  14. commonweeder says:

    An excellent post. You point out the problem from both sides. I think plants should be labeled so we know what they are, but if we have pets or children in our house who nibble greenery I think it is up to us individually to check the toxicity of our greenery.

  15. Then there’s guilt by association. Poinsettias were thought to be poisonous because other members of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) are, but it’s been shown that they won’t harm or kill you or your pets. An old gardeners’ tale…

    Because many of the tomato’s relatives are poisonous such as deadly nightshade and tobacco, tomatoes themselves were thought to be poisonous and were grown as only decorative plants. The Italians thought they were an aphrodisiac and were known as the “love apple.” Thomas Jefferson served tomatoes at Monticello, but in 1820 the tomato’s reputation was restored by Robert Gibbon Johnson. He stood on the steps of a New Jersey courthouse and ate some yellow tomatoes. The townsfolk must have been disappointed when nothing happened. Maybe they were thinking about the deadly supermarket tomato.

  16. donna says:

    Well, having taken a dog to the emergency clinic after eating half a euphorbia, I can feel for the sago palm lady. But I have sagos in my yard, too and the dog never eats them. Go figure. Stupid puppies learn or die, just like the rest of us. I would have been sad to lose Darwin, who probably tasted at least half the plants in the yard, but then again, he did stop eating the plants after that experience, so I guess he learned something after all.

    He still chewed up aluminum cans and CDs, though. But he didn’t swallow them. I used to have a “what did Darwin eat this week” joke with my trainer.

    Lots of things can kill pets and people. We can’t label everything. Just watch the puppies closely.

  17. Individual allergic reactions are so unpredictable, and the effects often worse than ‘proper’ poisoning, that it is impossible to expect a garden center to have all the answers.

    I once met someone who nearly died just because he used some of his wife’s rosemary scented bath salts and his throat closed almost completely.

    The individual has to take responsibility and that means keeping pets and plants separate and educating children. Teaching a three year old not to eat any plant unless they know, for sure, what the effect will be is the first stage in getting the teenager they become to say no when offered booze or drugs.

  18. Sharon says:

    Who cares about toxic plants – I LOVE the photos of your gardens! They’re rambling, informal, inviting, eclectic, friendly…… makes me realize I need to relax my style a bit…..and buy more plants!!

  19. Oh wow! The photos are absolutely beautiful! By no means do I want you think I am spamming, but I also came across your other blog and would love to list both of your blogs on my gardening blog (and would love if you would be able to add mine). Mine is brand new, but I am working on it very hard to get it up and “growing”!

  20. Coldprairie says:

    I love the photos too!

    I fall firmly on the personal responsibility debate – you the pet owner have a duty to yourself and the pet to keep them safe. Period.

    If the garden centre wanted to be proactive and is well versed in marketing, then they COULD very well set up a pet-friendly bench or section with a huge puppy/kitten poster that says pet friendly. I betcha sales would go up great.

    And no mystery plants! That’s totally the garden centre’s job. Can’t label it – don’t sell it.

  21. Jo Ann says:

    In full agreement with coldprairie no more mystery plants! I believe it’s the seller’s responsibility to label their plants with there correct names both COMMON and LATIN and our responsibility to do the research on toxicity and to decide for ourselves if we want this plant in our yards and homes…no more complaining that the dog ate the Sago palm and died and nobody told me it’s poisonous we have the internet now folks information is out there for those who look for it. Just my view on the matter.

  22. Katie says:

    I say, there is no way they can label them all. And, if they didn’t want to sell anything poisonous, they should sell the boxes of big blue.

  23. Katie says:

    TYPO above! They should NOT sell big blue. . .

  24. Kate@daylesfordorganics.com says:

    I have only just found your blog. I have no idea how I got here but I’m so glad I have. I love your ideology. I couldn’t agree more that gardens don’t have to be manicured and mimic those in magazines. I agree that we should be passionate and excited about our gardens. Here at Daylesford Organics in Australia we believe in growing fruit, vegies and eggs that look and taste amazing. We grow them with love and with respect to Mother Nature rather than with chemicals. Check out our new blog at daylesfordorganics.com, I think you’ll find we have a lot in common.

  25. The world is full of danger. It is our personal responsibility to accept or reject them. I won’t be running with unlabled dangerous scissors any time soon…

  26. Lynn says:

    I’ll sing in the “please label the houseplants, garden centers” chorus. But the issues your bring up, in addition to the 433 plants the ASPCA lists as having “systemic effects on animals and/or intense effects on the gastrointestinal tract”
    (http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants/), make it pretty unfeasible to consistently label for toxicity. Let’s start with just getting the Latin names on there. and YES! Your garden is really on fire.

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