01 of 10
Pokeweed: No Polk Salad for You!
The number of poisonous plants commonly found growing wild along the road or even in people's yards is breathtaking. Who should find this fact concerning? Well, if you have children, access to these plants puts them at risk. Young children are constantly tempted to put objects in their mouths; colorful berries are particularly tempting. Even older kids, driven by curiosity (and perhaps inspired by something they saw on TV or the web) or urged on in a dare, have been known to ingest plants... that turn out to be toxic.
My purpose in this article is not to offer a comprehensive list. If we were to count all of the plants that are at least mildly toxic (meaning that they may give you a tummy ache if you eat too much of them), there would be so many that it would be impractical to list them all. Instead, my purpose here is twofold:
- To list some of the most poisonous plants that North Americans are likely to encounter (that is, those toxic enough to be lethal or to cause serious health problems if ingested in sufficient amounts).
- To draw special attention to those that pose the greatest danger to children, because their colorful berries are easily accessible and serve as a magnet for young mouths. By contrast, while daffodil plants (to cite one example) are, in fact, poisonous, it is the underground bulb that is toxic (and young children are unlikely to dig it up and eat it).
My pictures will help you identify these plants. Once you know what they look like, you will have the information you need to make an informed decision about them. You may wish to remove such plants if they are already growing in your yard (especially the weedy ones). If, on the other hand, you do not yet own one of the poisonous landscape plants identified here, reading this article may dissuade you from buying one at the garden center this year (there are so many other great plants to choose from that are safe to grow around kids).
Pokeweed: Poisonous Purple Berries Tempting to Children
I will begin with the poisonous plant in my first picture, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Because this plant was featured in Tony Joe White's popular 1968 song, "Polk Salad Annie," many people have become aware that pokeweed, or simply "poke" (variant, "polk") has traditionally been eaten in parts of the southern United States. Despite the song title, the more proper way to spell the dish in question is "poke sallet." That is because it is not a salad but rather greens harvested from a young pokeweed plant and cooked, as you would spinach.
Unhappily, fewer people realize that all parts of this potentially lethal plant are considered poisonous. Those in the South who have traditionally made poke sallet know exactly how to cook it to remove the toxins. Assuming that you do not possess such knowledge, you should not be eating any "polk salad." And young children playing in the yard should definitely not be allowed to nibble at pokeweed.
How does a pokeweed plant crop up in someone's yard to begin with? Wild birds are often the culprits. They eat the berries, then "deposit" the seeds, which can sprout up at the edge of a garden or in some neglected area of the landscape.
If you are trying to get rid of pokeweed, be aware that it has a deep, long taproot. You must dig out this taproot entirely in order to eradicate the plant. Lest new plants should spring up from seed, remove and dispose of any berries produced.
On the next page I will warn you about another poisonous plant with berries that are all-too-enticing to children....Continue to 2 of 10 below.
02 of 10
Doll's Eyes: Don't Roll Your Eyes at Me!
Did you notice those crazy reddish-pink stems in my picture of pokeweed (prior page)? The poisonous plant pictured here, variously called "white baneberry" or "doll's eyes," displays the same eye-opening attribute. Both are native to North America. All parts of the plant are toxic if you eat them in sufficient quantity.
Again, what would concern me most about having this poisonous plant around if I had children playing in the yard is the berries. Their alluring appearance is... responsible for the common name, "doll's eyes." But toxic berries are not play things! And even contact with the leaves can, reputedly, cause a skin rash. Fortunately, doll's eyes is less likely to show up in your yard than pokeweed. But I have spotted it growing along a bike path in my area that is popular with children.
Two other plants native to North America deserve mention here simply because they are among our most poisonous plants:
- White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum)
- Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata)
You may recognize that genus name, Eupatorium, for snakeroot: the plant is related to Joe-Pye weed (both have masses of tiny, fluffy flowers). Do not confuse water hemlock with the tree, Canadian hemlock; about the only thing they have in common is their name. Water hemlock does, however, look a bit like angelica.
On Page 3 of this list, I present a poisonous plant with pretty berries that is more likely to be found in your landscaping than doll's eyes....Continue to 3 of 10 below.
03 of 10
Bittersweet Nightshade: Infamous Lineage
When it comes to bittersweet nightshade berries and children, I speak from experience. My childhood yard, like many yards across North America, always had some bittersweet nightshade weeds growing in it (typically along a fence). The wild birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds around in their poop. As a child, I was always fascinated by these berries.
Why? Because they were a bunch of different colors all at once. Green at the start, their first color stage in the maturation process is... yellow. When they really start to get serious about maturing, they morph to an orange color. Once that happens, the final color stage -- namely, red -- can't be far behind. But what makes all of this so interesting to children who have all the time in the world to ponder such things is that each berry has a different starting -- and ending -- point in this colorful journey. The result is what one might term a "tutti-frutti" appearance, reminiscent of the package for the chewing gum by that name (as an adult, I learned that "tutti frutti" is Italian for "all the fruits," suggesting multiple colors).
Attracted as I was to the berries of these poisonous plants, it was only a matter of time until I ate a few, just to try them. I do not remember getting violently ill, but, then again, I also do not remember exactly how many I ate. Maybe the amount was small enough to be relatively harmless. Nonetheless, in hindsight, it was a bad idea to put them in my youthful mouth.
Perhaps you have heard of "nightshade" before. That is the family to which bittersweet nightshade belongs. It is a plant family infamous for being poisonous, and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is no exception. Remove this weed from your landscaping if you have small children.
On the next page, I will show you another plant with poisonous berries. Only, this time, it will be no weed, no wild plant, but a landscape plant....Continue to 4 of 10 below.
04 of 10
Warning Yew: Seeds, Needles Poisonous
Among shrubs, few have been used more widely in the U.K. and in North America than yew bushes. They have been classic landscape plants for some time now, prized for the fact that they are not very fussy when it comes to growing requirements, being tolerant of a variety of soils and sunlight conditions. I always remember some particularly healthy specimens I encountered near the historic Nathaniel Hawthorne House in Salem, Massachusetts (yes, the famous House of the Seven Gables).
But all parts of... the plant are toxic, except for the flesh of the berry (which botanists actually call an "aril"). This exception affords little comfort, since the seeds within the berry are poisonous. So, for all intents and purposes, if kids eat the berries, then they can get sick. Do not grow this poisonous plant around small children if you wish to stay on the safe side.
In the next three entries I will present some poisonous plants native to warmer climates but used very commonly during the summer in Northern landscapes....Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
Castor Bean: As If Castor Oil Weren't Bad Enough
Castor bean plants have been grown for medicinal purposes for a long time. For example, castor oil, extracted from the "beans" (more accurately, the seeds produced in the pods), wound up in many a bathroom medicine cabinet in our parents' or grandparents' day. I am sure that even a few of you reading this article have used it as a laxative. If you have ever contorted your face after drinking some, to protest the awful taste, console yourself with the fact that your taste buds... were sharp enough to tell you something important.
The toxin, ricin is derived from the seeds of castor beans, making them potentially lethal. So just because they have medicinal uses, that does not mean you can be complacent about them. Indeed, the fact that a plant can be medicinal and toxic at the same time is one of the things that most confuses newcomers to the topic of growing poisonous plants in the landscape.
Castor bean plants offer a certain luxuriance to the landscape. Their large leaves lend the yard a tropical feel, and their red-colored seed pods offer further visual interest. Some have dark leaves that aficionados of "black plants" will find appealing. But does all this beauty make it worthwhile to risk growing the plant in a yard where children will be playing? Probably not.
On the next page, we will look at another gorgeous, toxic tropical plant....Continue to 6 of 10 below.
06 of 10
Angel's Trumpet: Devilishly Toxic
While the beautiful angel's trumpet (Brugmansia) has a heavenly fragrance, all parts of this hallucinogenic plant from the tropics can be quite poisonous if eaten in large quantities (even smaller quantities ingested by children can make them sick).
Unfortunately, the toxicity warning goes beyond saying, "Make sure that children do not eat any plant parts from angel's trumpet." Snapping off a leaf or branch from an angel's trumpet plant can cause a sap to ooze out, and some... people develop health issues when this sap merely makes contact with their skin (whatever you do, do not let any of the sap get into your eyes!).
Thus the usual recommendation for pruning Brugmansia is to advise the wearing of gloves, long sleeves, and goggles. But such advice is obviously of little help when it comes to keeping children safe who will be playing in the yard around this plant. In the latter instance, the best safeguard is obviously not to grow angel's trumpets, at all, where children will have access to it.
On the next page, I will discuss another warm-weather plant that is infamously toxic....Continue to 7 of 10 below.
07 of 10
Oleander: Poison in the Desert
All parts of oleander plants can cause death if eaten in sufficient amounts. As if that were not bad enough, mere contact with the plant's foliage can cause a rash.
Whereas the prior two poisonous plants (namely, castor beans and angel's trumpets) are jungle plants, I know oleander as a desert plant. I came across a lot of it in my journey along historic Route 66 when I crossed over from Arizona into California.
The next plant I cover -- like baneberry earlier -- has a "bane" in... its very name to warn you of its toxicity....Continue to 8 of 10 below.
08 of 10
Wolfsbane Could Also Be Your Children's Bane
Aconitum goes by either "monkshood" or "wolfsbane" (sometimes written as two words: wolf's bane) as a common name. I prefer the latter in the context of warning you about poisonous plants you should not grow around children. The former is a reference to this perennial's flower. Those imaginative folks who have given plants their common names over the centuries fancied that the shape of the flower mimics that of the hood on a garment traditionally worn by monks.
Fewer and... fewer people can relate to "monkshood" as a common name. Your first thought may be that "wolfsbane" is not much better, considering that not many people have wolves running around in their neighborhoods these days. But the "bane" in "wolfsbane" tells you all you need to know: if it can kill a wolf, it can kill you!
Wolfsbane is one of our most poisonous plants. All parts of the plant are toxic (the roots are thought to be especially deadly). The culprits are the alkaloids, aconitine and aconite (names derived from the genus name, Aconitum). Even if you keep your children from putting wolfsbane in their mouths, you are still not out of the woods. Poisoning can occur through the skin (especially if there is a cut in the skin).
The plant is related to the perennial, delphinium, which is also poisonous.
We will investigate another infamous toxic plant on the next page....Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
Don't Be Outfoxed: Foxglove Potentially Lethal
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a classic cottage garden plant. The beauty of this stately plant has entranced gardeners for ages. Unhappily, ingesting it can be fatal, as foxglove is one of our most poisonous plants.
This is another case where a plant can be medicinal and toxic simultaneously. All of its parts are poisonous. But you have probably heard of digitalis being used to treat heart conditions.
According to Drugs.com, "Children have become ill by sucking the flowers or ingesting... seeds or parts of the leaves."
I have one more example of a poisonous plant to keep away from children (or, rather, a group of related plants)....Continue to 10 of 10 below.
10 of 10
Rhododendron: All in the Family
What could be more common in the North American landscape than a rhododendron bush, right? But according to the North Carolina State University Extension, all parts of this shrub are toxic, thanks to the presence of Andromedotoxin. The name of that toxin serves as a reminder that rhododendron belongs to a family of plants (namely, Ericaceae) several of which are poisonous, examples of which include Andromeda (Pieris) shrubs. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is another toxic member of this... family. And, as you may know, so-called "azalea bushes" are really just a sub-set of the Rhododendron genus, so you have to be careful growing them, too around children.
Of course, it is not just our children we worry about when it comes to the risk posed by poisonous plants. Consult the following lists of toxic plants if you have pets you are worried about:
Elsewhere, I have related a story about how my beloved cat became sick from eating Allium seeds.