Category Archives: poisonous plants

Holiday Plant Safety for Pets and Small Children

pointsettia_colors.2048Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants in the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we really come to appreciate them. My cat, Sam Spade, likes to sit on my drafting table and look at the bird feeder in the tree outside the window. Next to the table is a houseplant that I never gave a second thought to until he started nibbling on it recently.

The plant is a Tricolor dracaena marginata and I should have checked for toxicity when I first got it. Thankfully, he didn’t become nauseous or developed any other symptoms. Now I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree. I have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs and have Christmas cactus in several locations. How safe are these plants for Sam?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. I pointsettia_closeup.1920used to live in Pismo Beach where this plant grows tall in the mild winter weather. In Hawaii where my sister used to live they are used as hedges. Unfortunately, it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsettia as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Poinsettia hold up well inside either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly but not completely between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

cyclamen_red_white.2048There are other pets in my household including another cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. . Keep in mind that pets and people differ in which plants are toxic and to what agree. According to Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont, it’s the corm or tuber of the cyclamen that contains triterpenoid saponins and it is unlikely that humans (including children) would eat the thickened roots and be affected.amaryllis_white

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but it’s the bulb which is toxic. Amaryllis contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason wild animals like deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t like with other holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Gardens are for Healing, Kids and Pets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA garden is the perfect example of the circle of life. A garden is nature’s way of taking and giving back life to the earth.  A garden represents the infinite nature of energy. I am reminded of this as my best friend lost her dog to cancer recently and within a day my niece gave birth to her first child. A garden holds hope. And it can heal our sorrows.

I am in a garden every day. Sometimes it’s the garden of friends I’m enjoying or helping a client with theirs or strolling a public garden and of course, I am in my own garden daily. Wherever I go I receive something from the experience and try to leave some positive energy there. The events this week have me thinking about what makes a garden that heals? And on the other side of the circle of life what’s important in a kid and pet friendly garden?

Through our history gardens have been used to aid in the healing process. Japanese Zen Gardens and Monastic Cloister gardens are good examples of this. Viewing natural scenes helps us reduce stress and negative emotions and replaces them with positive feelings.

To make your garden look better and make you feel better when you’re in it pay special OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAattention to plant selection. Allow the plants to dominate with a minimal amount of hardscaping. Choose plants that are fragrant, colorful or soft to the touch. Plants that attract wildlife make a garden a happy place. Simple, bold mass plantings are more comforting than a wild mix of many varieties. Leave that to the cutting garden. Enclose the space to keep your thoughts inward and peaceful.

It’s just as important if you have children and pets to create a garden that is calming and relieves stress.

Picking plants for a backyard that is shared with dogs is especially important if your dog naturally nibbles on greenery or berries. Some plants are lethal while others can cause OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAillness or vomiting. I was surprised to see so many common plants on the ASPCA website that could cause problems like carnations, primroses and geraniums. What’s safe for us like grapes and avocado are not good for dogs. Check the list to make sure the plants your are considering are safe for your dog.

Plants near paths should have soft foliage without thorns and spines which can cause eye injury.  Brittle plants like salvias should be in the center where they’ll be protected.  Densely planted areas are usually avoided by dogs but planting in raised beds or mounds help, too. Pieces of driftwood placed at the front of a border will discourage them.  Start with one gallon or larger plants that can stand up to a little roughhousing.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous.  Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt.  and search “plants”.

What makes a great experience for a kid in the garden? In a nutshell, you can teach children of any age about beneficial insects in a garden and other wildlife.  Older kids can identify and nibble edible flowers like calendula, dianthus, nasturtiums, pansies, peas and beans. Grow flowers that kids can cut like zinnias and snapdragons and plants to touch that are soft and furry like lamb’s ears.

Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden.  You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a “door” that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown.  Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside.  Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.

Make your garden one everyone can enjoy.

Poisonous Natives / Deer Resistant Natives

July already. Plants are growing like there's no tomorrow. The hummingbirds are my constant companions in the garden and the resident deer population comes by daily. There are two spotted fawns that now accompany their mother along with a couple of her sisters. Life is good.

I see them sampling plants what the older deer are trying. There are native plants that are poisonous for us but only some of them are avoided by deer. It got me thinking. How do deer eat poisonous plants without apparent ill affect?  

Deer are browsers. They thrive on a mixed diet. You've seen them eat a few roses then saunter over to the abutilon and then on to the daylily flowers. Deer will eat almost anything, even plants with a strong scent like catmint, lavender,  or thyme when they are hungry or need water. They can even eat a few bites of various toxic plants.

According to Tom Hanley,  a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, "There seems to be threshold levels for the toxicity of different plants, and as long as deer eat below that threshold, they're okay."  Plant toxicity varies with the time of year also and flowers may be less toxic than leaves or roots. They just mix it up.

That explains the eating habits of deer but what about us?

Many of us are including native plants in our landscapes to attract wildlife and save water and resources. Here are some common native plants that you should be aware of if you have small children.  This list comes from
Borstein, Foss and O'Brian- California Native plants for the Garden.

Coffeeberry- leaves, berries and bark
California buckeye- all parts  (poisonous to bees also)
Western azalea- all parts
Elderberry- all parts except ripe berries and fruit
Solanum-all parts
California buttercup- juice of the plant
Berberis- roots and leaves
Prunus ( cherry )- seeds
California poppy- all parts
Lupine (annual)- seeds, fresh leaves and stems.

Mostly though, native plants make great additions to the garden. They tend to be well behaved and are rarely invasive. Birds and butterflies rely on them for food, shelter and nesting. And best of all they are beautiful.

When I'm designing with native plants I find the following plants are fairly safe around deer. They are not perfectly safe at all times of the year but they are usually avoided.

Artemisia also called Ca. sagebrush
Asarum – Wild ginger
Baccharis – Dwf coyote brush
Ceanothus  'Julia Phelps'
Eriogonum – Ca. buckwheat
Douglas iris
Mimulus auritanicus – Sticky monkey flower
Monardella – Coyote mint
Ribes speciosum – Fuchsia-flowering gooseberry

Enjoy your garden. Let the deer browse elsewhere and be aware of plants that may be toxic to children.


Rhododendrons and other Poisonous Plants

My fascination with poisonous plants was piqued recently while researching organic methods for eliminating rhododendron root weevils. You’ve probably seen their damage-scalloped or notched leaf margins starting in May or June. The adult weevils feed at night but usually do not seriously injure the plant. It’s the larvae feeding unseen on roots that will cause severe damage and death of the plant if weevils are left uncontrolled.

Because rhododendrons contain toxic resins that are more concentrated in the foliage, to pesticides along with a tolerance for the toxins in the leaves. Organic or even chemical sprays have little effect anymore according to a study funded by the Rhododendron Society of America and end up killing hundreds more predatory beetles and other beneficial insects in the process.

Applying parasitic nematodes to your soil is one way to control weevils. Other tactics include placing a shallow pan of water under the plant or a soup can filled with soapy water buried up to the to attract and drown the adults . You can also try banding the trunks with tape or waterproof paper and smearing the bands with a sticky barrier like Tanglefoot. Spreading some coffee grounds under the plants also helps to discourage them from crawling up the trunk after they spend the night at the base of the plant. And if you’re really determined you can hand pick them after dark- effective but not much fun.

Rhododendrons are just one or our beautiful plants that are poisonous. Children are more susceptible to the effects of plant toxins and should be taught not to eat seeds, berries or leaves from any plant. Do not assume a plant is nontoxic because birds or wildlife can consume it without harmful effects. Be prepared for an emergency by keeping syrup of ipecac on hand and the number of the Poison Control Center. ( 1-800-222-1222 )

Small pets can also be at risk if they ingest parts of poisonous plants out in the yard. Know what plants you have and keep a list. Oleander and foxglove are notorious deadly plants. Here are just some others you might not know.

Hydrangea leaves, flowers and branches contain cyanide. Lantana foliage and especially unripe berries also contain dangerous toxins while delphinium leaves and seeds contain toxic alkaloids which decrease as the plant ages. Sweet peas, lobelia, impatiens, carnations, calla lily, mums and bleeding hearts also have plant parts with come degree of negative effect if ingested.

Surprisingly, even some vegetables contain natural toxins. Diseased celery and green potatoes as well as potato leaves and sprouts produce a very strong toxin. Raw, green, young asparagus shoots can cause dermatitis and the red berries that form on their feathery branches are poisonous. Large quantities of tomato leaves and stems contain alkaloid poisons. Livestock have died from eating the foliage. I guess the deer that browse your tomato vines aren’t ingesting enough to cause them harm as they seem to know just when you have another set of buds for them to nibble.

Trees are not the most common cause of accidental poisonings around the home but a few species may present a hazard.
The black seed inside apples contain cyanide although you have to eat large quantities for them to be deadly. Peach kernals, bark and twigs contain cyanide also as do apricot, cherry and plum pits.

You don’t have to eliminate plants around the home that have natural toxins. Humans have lived for centuries around gardens and orchards. Just be prepared by knowing what plants grow on your property.