Be Careful With Plants: They May Be Toxic!

Be Careful With Plants: They May Be Toxic!

by Dr. Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D.  Our treks outdoors and inside our homes and gardens often feature plants we enjoy for their looks, flowers, fruits, quick growth, unusual characteristics, or other qualities. But some plants are toxic to people or pets. So before handling plants afield, bringing home that new houseplant, or growing that new addition to the garden, do research about any dangers that might exist.   

At a nursery or garden supply shop, ask if the plant (or its parts) is poisonous, and read the labels or warnings on the plant’s tag. Research online or at your library to learn about the plant before buying it. If the plant is poisonous, keep it out of reach of little children and away from pets, or just don’t buy it. It’s a good practice to teach your children not to eat, taste, or handle any house or garden plants without an adult present to supervise.   

When camping or hiking, it might be tempting to taste a berry, leaf, or plant part, but don’t rely on the fact that the birds or wildlife have consumed a plant without apparent harm. Use a field guide to learn about the plants in the region — and the poisonous ones. Be especially wary of any mushrooms and ferns.   

toxic plants, field guide
Identifying wildflower with botany field guide

Remember that some plants used for firewood or to hold that marshmallow over the campfire might be toxic, producing poisonous smoke that can cause nausea or irritate eyes and throats. Yes, cooking sometimes eliminates the poison in a few plants, but that is not true of all of them. A field guide will tell you which plants lose their poisonous character with certain types of cooking.  

The signs of poisoning might appear quickly, but with some plants, it can take as long as 15 hours for the person to get sick after eating or tasting a poisonous plant. If the poisoning is not too serious, a physician or the Poison Control Center can probably tell you what to do at home for the care of the victim. In serious cases, get the person medical help.  

Not all the toxicity is in the eating. Some plants cause a rash or skin irritation. The most common of these are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, but many plants can cause redness, itch, and discomfort. Use a field guide and avoid handling plants while you’re afield.  

toxic plants, skin irritation
Poison Ivy rash

Here’s are some common, but toxic plants or plant parts: apricot seeds, avocado leaves, azalea, buttercup, wild cherry, Christmas rose, crocus, daffodil, holly berries, iris, ivy, jasmine, jimson weed, laurel, lily-of-the-valley, mistletoe, morning glory, nightshade, oleander, poinsettia, hemlock, poppy, rhubarb leaves, sweet pea, tomato vines, and yew.  

Plants and plant parts harmful to pets include yeast for dough, coffee grounds, Macadamia nuts, leaves and stems from tomato and potato plants, avocado fruit, onions, grapes, raisins, chocolate, seeds from pears and peaches, mushrooms toxic to humans, rhubarb, spinach, wild cherry, almonds, and Japanese plum.   

And one final, although unusual, note. There are about 12 known plant species that draw some or all of their nutrition from animals that they catch and use as food. The animals are attracted to the plant by color, aroma, or nectar. Once attracted, a trap-like part of the plant catches the animal. Most of the animals are insects, but some plants even catch small birds or small mammals — something to consider if your garden is designed to be a safe habitat for small animals.  

These plants trap the animal onto a sticky surface or suck in an animal, or snap shut when an animal is caught. The plant can dissolve the animal into a form from which the plant gets nutrition and, hard parts, such as bone, might be left behind.  

DR. STEPHENIE SLAHOR’S farm and ranch background includes cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, rabbits, birds, chickens, geese, turkeys, and tortoises — but not necessarily all at the same time! She would be one of the first to agree that, indeed, “Variety is the spice of life!” Her degrees are a Ph.D. and a J.D., which, she says, “cost a fortune in time and money, but well worth it!”   

Originally published in May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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