The number of poisonous plants commonly found growing wild along the road or planted in people's yards is breathtaking. If you have children (or dogs or other pets), 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 eat plants that turn out to be toxic.
A great many plants are at least mildly toxic (meaning that they may give you a tummy ache if you eat too much of them). There are so many that it would be impractical to list them all.
But, for the sake of yard safety, it's a good idea for North Americans to learn about some of the most poisonous plants they're likely to encounter (those toxic enough to be lethal or to cause serious health problems if eaten in sufficient amounts).
Those bearing colorful berries that are easily accessible pose the greatest danger to curious children. By contrast, while daffodil plants, for example, are poisonous, it's the underground bulb that's toxic (and young children are unlikely to dig it up and eat it).
Once you know what these poisonous plants look like, you may wish to remove such plants if they're already growing in your yard (especially the weedy ones). If, on the other hand, you don't yet own one of them, you'll know what to avoid buying at the garden center this year (there are so many other great plants to choose from that are safe to grow around kids).
01 of 11
Because pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was featured in Tony Joe White's popular 1968 song, "Polk Salad Annie," many people have become aware that pokeweed (or simply "poke") 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's because it's 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 don't possess such knowledge, you shouldn't be eating any "poke salad." And young children playing in the yard should definitely not be allowed to nibble at pokeweed.
The reason pokeweed plants so often crop up in people's yards is that wild birds eat the berries, then they "deposit" the seeds, which can sprout up at the edge of a garden or in some neglected area of the landscape.
If you're trying to get rid of pokeweed, be aware that it has a deep, long taproot. You must dig out this taproot entirely to eradicate the plant. Lest new plants should spring up from seed, remove and dispose of any berries produced.
02 of 11
Like pokeweed, Actaea pachypoda, variously called "white baneberry" or "doll's eyes," has crazy, reddish-pink stems. Both are native to North America. All parts of the plant are toxic if you eat them in sufficient quantity.
What should concern you most about having this poisonous plant around if you have children playing in the yard is the berries. Their appearance is responsible for the common name, "doll's eyes." But toxic berries are not playthings. And even contact with the leaves can cause a skin rash.
Fortunately, doll's eyes are less likely to show up in your yard or along the road than pokeweed; it's a woodland plant. Two other woodland plants native to North America deserve mention here simply because they're among our most poisonous plants:
- White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum)
- Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata)
You may recognize that genus name, Eupatorium, for snakeroot: It's related to Joe-Pye weed (both have masses of tiny, fluffy flowers). Don't 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.
03 of 11
Many yards across North America have some bittersweet nightshade weeds growing in them (typically along a fence). The wild birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds around in their poop.
Children are tempted to eat bittersweet nightshade berries (Solanum dulcamara) because they're so pretty, displaying 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 (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 a candy-like appearance that beckons for a taste test.
Attracted as kids are to the berries of these poisonous plants, it's only a matter of time until they eat a few, just to try them. If the amount eaten is small enough, the experience may be relatively harmless. But there's no reason for parents to risk it.
Perhaps you have heard of "nightshade" before. That's the family to which bittersweet nightshade belongs. It's a plant family infamous for being poisonous.
04 of 11
Among shrubs, few have been used more widely in the U.K. and in North America than yew bushes (Taxus). They've been classic landscape plants for some time now, prized for the fact that they aren't very fussy about where you plant them, being tolerant of a variety of soils and sunlight conditions.
But all parts of the plants are toxic, except for the flesh of the berry. 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. Don't grow this poisonous plant around small children if you wish to stay on the safe side.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Castor bean plants (Ricinus communis) have long been grown for medicinal purposes. For example, castor oil, extracted from the "beans" (more accurately, the seeds produced in the pods), wound up in many bathroom medicine cabinets in our parents' or grandparents' day, when it was used as a laxative. If you've 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 doesn't 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 confuse 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 lovers of "black plants" will find appealing. Despite the beauty, growing this plant in a yard where children will be playing isn't worth the risk.
06 of 11
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 eaten 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 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 warning for pruning Brugmansia is to wear gloves, long sleeves, and goggles. But such advice is obviously of little help when it comes to keeping children safe who'll be playing in the yard around this plant.
07 of 11
All parts of oleander plants (Nerium oleander) can cause death if eaten in sufficient amounts. As if that weren't bad enough, mere contact with the plant's foliage can cause a rash.
Whereas castor beans and angel's trumpets are jungle plants in the wild, oleander is more often a desert plant.
08 of 11
Aconitum goes by either "monkshood" or "wolfsbane" in common lingo. The latter is better in the context of education on poisonous plants you shouldn't grow around children. The "bane" (meaning "a deadly poison") 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're still not out of the woods. Poisoning can occur through the skin (especially if there's a cut in the skin).
The plant is related to the perennial, delphinium, which is also poisonous.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
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. There are cases of children getting sick from sucking the flowers, eating the seeds, or nibbling at the leaves. But digitalis is also used to treat heart conditions.
10 of 11
Rhododendron bushes (Azalea spp.) are common in the North American landscape. But 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. So-called "azalea bushes" are really just a sub-set of the Rhododendron genus, so you have to be careful growing them around children as well.
11 of 11
The lovely pods of Chinese lantern plants (Physalis alkekengi) are another source of temptation for curious children who may wish to sample them. The fruit inside the pod, when unripe, is toxic.
But lovers of crafts, in particular, are tempted to grow them: The pods look great in fall wreaths, etc. Another drawback, though, is that it's tough to get rid of Chinese lantern plants, which are invasive.