Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
Anyone who has ever done any wild foraging will be the first to tell you that the ability to identify poisonous plants is more important than recognizing the edible ones. The fundamental problem is that many poisonous plants not only appear to be innocent but there are look-alikes that can confuse even the most experienced forager.
But there’s more to it than recognizing a poisonous plant. The question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you want to leave that plant for a child or pet to possibly eat or simply touch.
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Why Would Anyone Eat or Touch a Poisonous Plant?
The biggest reason is that some of them look good. Deadly Nightshade berries look like small, deep purple grapes. They’re actually called “Great Cherries” by some cultures. Pokeweed berries look like handheld berry sticks. The list goes on and to someone unfamiliar with the dangers of wild foraging, serious illness and even death can result.
But it’s not just about wild foraging. Poisonous if not deadly plants can pop up in your yard or on your property at any time. Their seeds are carried by the wind or distributed through bird droppings. And yes, some birds can tolerate berries and seeds that would make a person seriously ill or worse.
Pets are another story. Those of us who own dogs sometimes wonder if there’s anything a dog won’t eat. Dogs eat sticks, grass, and pine cones; if they can chew it they’ll taste it. It’s nice to assume that animals have some mysterious 6th sense about poisonous things.
Most don’t, and on those occasions when they do avoid something poisonous it’s mostly due to its smell or off odor. But there are no guarantees. Some toxic plants like Angel’s Trumpet are actually quite fragrant.
And It’s Not Just About Poison
Poison Ivy isn’t actually poisonous (it’s defined as toxic), but it can give someone a terrible rash, raise blisters, and could even cause their throat to swell if eaten in a wild salad. But just because it most likely won’t kill you doesn’t make it safe or desirable anywhere you live.
From the Wilderness to Your Backyard
Foxglove is a strikingly beautiful flower with bell-shaped blooms lining long stalks towering into the air. But it too has a hidden secret—it can give you a heart attack. In fact, the Latin name for Foxglove is Digitalis.
That happens to be the name of a prescription heart medicine and its primary ingredient is derived from chemicals in the Foxglove plant. The proportions of those chemicals in a pharmaceutical drug are perfect. That’s not the case in nature.
Maybe It’s Time for a Little Guerilla Gardening
We’re going to approach this a couple of ways. One is to identify and remove plants you might come across in areas frequented by friends, family, and especially children and dogs. This could be in your neighborhood, a park where your kids like to play, or even along the sidewalk leading to your house.
The second approach is search and destroy. This is about actively taking a close look at your yard or your surrounding property and eliminating plants that could pose a danger if not a direct threat to your family and pets. You should also advise family and friends about what you’ve seen in their yards and ask their permission to pull and dispose of the plant.
But It Can Get Complicated
Pulling out plants on your own property is not an issue. After all, it’s your property. Pulling out plants on property that belongs to someone else or a municipality could get you in some trouble.
If you’re yanking out some Deadly Nightshade vines which happen to be absolutely deadly, you have a pretty good argument for what you did. If you’re pulling out a stand of Foxgloves that someone planted, you might have a lot of explaining to do to the person who planted them or even the police.
The fact of the matter is that most people don’t realize how dangerous so many common plants can be. You’ll see that as we go down our list and you come across common yard and garden plants like Daffodils, Oleander, and Holly.
You Just Shouldn’t Plant Some Plants
It’s a head-scratcher when you think about how many toxic and ornamental plants are sold by nurseries and home centers. Plant a Common Yew and you’ve planted a bush with leaves and seeds that can kill a small child. Plant Lily of the Valley and you’ve put another crop of poison in your yard.
And Then There’s the Real Killers
We mentioned Deadly Nightshade and Pokeweed but there are other plants that no nursery or home center would touch. These are truly wild plants and they’re everywhere in forests and fields around the world.
We’re going to start with those and then move on to the dangerous ornamentals that you should think twice about planting. Then again, anytime you move into a new home you may find some things planted in the yard that need a second look and that should probably be pulled out.
We’re also going to cover how to safely remove the plants and just as important, how to safely dispose of them. On the list of plants that shouldn’t go into the compost heap –these top the list.
The Deadly Seven
These are the plants that should be destroyed on sight. If you’re concerned about taking a machete to plants in a public park, at least alert the park authorities to its presence and its dangers. If these plants show up on your property -get rid of them.
1. Water Hemlock
What’s insidious about Water Hemlock is that it can kill you not only as a result of eating it but for some people by merely touching it. This is especially true with children.
Worse, it has many wild edible look-alikes including wild parsnip, anise, and even sweet potatoes, celery, and artichokes. It’s also similar to other plants that are toxic like Giant Hogweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.
And, like so many toxic plants, it has been used in folk medicine for migraine headaches and worms in the intestines. Don’t even think about it as a home remedy for any of those conditions. There is no credible evidence to support its use in home or herbal medicine.
Water Hemlock often grows along the banks of springs, creeks, rivers, and ponds. It also prefers marshy areas and swampy meadows and can grow up to 10 feet tall. If you see it, destroy it and keep an eye on the area where you found it for new growth or reseeding.
2. Deadly Nightshade
Good news and bad news about Deadly Nightshade. The good news is that it’s not the most poisonous plant in North America. The bad news is that it has been described as the deadliest plant in the world.
Deadly Nightshade is also known as Belladonna or more colloquially the Great Cherry. It should come as no surprise that it is a member of the ominous-sounding Nightshade family. What’s surprising is that tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers are part of the same family.
Unfortunately, Belladonna Atropa or Deadly Nightshade is far from edible and as little as 2 berries can kill a child, and 10 berries can kill an adult.
Its range is largely across Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia but like so many plants it has found its way to North America. Even a single leaf consumed by a human would be deadly. Curiously, livestock show no ill effects after eating the leaves yet it’s still deadly to dogs.
It can grow anywhere although it is slow growing. If by any chance you come across a Deadly Nightshade plant anywhere, destroy it. If someone challenges you simply tell them it’s the most poisonous plant on Earth.
This plant (actually a tree) often shows up as the deadliest plant in North America but its range is limited to the Florida Everglades and further south in Central America and the Caribbean. It is sometimes referred to as the “Death Apple.” It is never sold as an ornamental because it’s not much to look at and even walking under the tree during a rainstorm can poison you.
Every part of the Manchineel is poisonous whether you touch it or eat one of its fruits. The sap is particularly toxic and the most common cause of death is swelling in the throat leading to asphyxiation.
4. Pokeweed (Pokeberries)
Pokeweed is a strange plant because some people actively forage the leaves for food when it first emerge in the spring. As the plant begins to flower and slowly develop berries that turn from green to purple, it becomes increasingly toxic.
This is one of those attractive plants with purple berries on a stem that look like a grocery store treat on a stick. The whole plant is poisonous but the berries can kill a child if consumed and have been known to result in death in adults.
It’s quite common across North America and grows across deciduous forests and fields. Birds will eat the berries with impunity and like many animals that have ingested poisonous plants, the bird’s eggs and meat will also become toxic.
5. Castor Bean
There’s a powerful poison called Ricin that has been used for centuries by assassins. It’s a chemical compound derived from the Castor Bean plant. Even inhaling the dust from the beans can cause death in humans.
Ironically, it’s the source for Castor Oil although the Ricin is removed in the oil-making process. It would seem that in the category of bad jobs, making Castor Oil from Castor Beans would be one of them.
The plant is not dangerous to the touch but eating the beans (or grinding them into flour) is a death sentence. Castor Bean grows across Eastern Africa, India, and the southeastern Mediterranean although it has been introduced to North America both as an ornamental plant and a planted crop for castor oil and has spread to the wild.
Why anyone would plant such a poisonous plant in their yard is hard to understand, but if a Castor Bean plant has found its way onto your property –wipe it out.
6. White Snakeroot
You may have heard the story. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on White Snakeroot. This is another instance where some animals can tolerate poisonous plants, but impart the poison to their meat or in the case of cows –their milk.
Anyone who consumes the leaves or flowers of the plant can die as well. White Snakeroot grows wild across most of North America favoring the eastern portion of the continent and is a common wildflower. If you come across White Snakeroot on your property—get rid of it. Especially if you have livestock.
7. Poison Hemlock
If you see the word “hemlock” it’s a good clue that it’s dangerous. If you see the word “poison” there should be no further questions. Poison Hemlock is another one of those plants that are indigenous to Europe, Asia, and Africa but have found their way to North America.
All parts of the Poison Hemlock are poisonous and the plants can grow from 3 to 8 feet tall across forests and fields.
Other Wild Things
- Poison Ivy
- Poison Oak
- Poison Sumac
- Giant Hogweed
- Cow Parsnip
- Wild Parsnip
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Bitter Nightshade
We’ve already mentioned the occurrence of poisonous plants as a result of their ornamental appeal. The simplest solution is to avoid planting anything that’s poisonous in your yard or garden. The problem is that nurseries and home centers don’t do a really good job of alerting people to the fact that some of the plants they’re selling are deadly.
Here, in no particular order are common ornamental plants that show up in gardens all the time. Maybe you didn’t know they were a risk, or maybe they just happened to be there when you bought that new house or farm.
If you have them and don’t know how toxic they are, maybe think twice about keeping them on your property. If you’re thinking about buying and planting them, maybe you should think twice about that as well.
√ Lily of the Valley
Lily of the Valley often grows wild but can also be purchased and planted. In case you didn’t know—it’s poisonous. It contains a potent cardiac toxin that leads to dizziness, vomiting, rashes, diarrhea, and possibly death.
Lily of the Valley is especially toxic to children who are often attracted to their pretty, bell-shaped flowers.
Lantana is not an indigenous plant native to North America. But once again, nurseries, home centers, and internet-based companies have brought it home as an ornamental. Unfortunately, the leaves, roots, and berries are all poisonous to humans.
Lantana is a tropical and sub-tropical plant sometimes known as “yellow sage.” The plant has been linked to deaths in children, horses, and dogs. If you see it at a nursery –don’t buy it. If you buy a new property and find it, or it happens to find its way to your backyard or homestead –kill it.
You see Foxglove everywhere. They are striking plants with long, vertical rows of flowers on tall stalks up to 6 feet high. The flowers resemble bells and it’s also known as the “thimble flower.” There’s only one problem—it’s deadly.
We mentioned it earlier and you really have to ask yourself if it’s worth planting a flower on your property that could cause a heart attack. Both the flowers and the pretty seeds that result are potent cardiac toxins. It can cause death in adults and especially children. Just don’t plant it.
Oleander is a popular ornamental shrub that prefers a southern climate but often shows up across North America in yards and gardens. All parts of the plant are poisonous and it can affect people just by touch. It makes you wonder how someone could manage to plant it in the first place.
The leaves are especially toxic and if consumed for any reason can lead to death, especially in children. It’s not common for people to eat the leaves of shrubbery, but you have to wonder if you really want a highly poisonous plant quietly growing on your property.
Holly makes a regular appearance around Christmas and is sometimes grown around homes as an ornamental bush. The leaves are not a threat but the berries are highly toxic and have resulted in the 3rd highest incidence of reported poisonings from plants.
This comes as a surprise to many. All parts of the Daffodil are poisonous, especially the bulb. In fact, the bulbs of many plants are highly toxic including Amaryllis, Hyacinths, Snowdrop, Tulips, and Lilies. It’s hard for some people to imagine not planting these flowers. It’s also hard to imagine why anyone would eat the bulb, but animals often do and that could include inquisitive pets.
Just to put things in perspective, we often eat the bulbs of onions without a second thought. What you may not know is the chemical that causes your eyes to tear when you slice an onion. That’s caused by sulfenic acid released from the onion.
√ Angel Trumpets
Angel Trumpets are evergreens with highly fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers. And of course, it’s poisonous. It actually has the same toxic compounds as Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. The leaves, flowers, and seeds are all considered highly toxic.
It’s reported that ingesting as few as 10 Angel Trumpet Flowers would result in death. The reason that’s troubling is that some people regularly decorate salads and soups with flowers. Here again, the best way to keep children, pets, or foraging adults safe is to simply avoid planting them, and removing them if they show up on your property.
And Yes, There’s More
If this is your first time thinking about the potential dangers of plants you may be surprised if not skeptical about the threat. But it’s real and for a very simple reason.
Unlike most organisms confronted by a predator, plants can’t run away. Their only defense is to evolve thorns, thistles, needles, or in most instances –present themselves as toxic if not poisonous.
- Desert Rose
- 96% of the 10,000 wild mushrooms in North America
- And would you believe: Aloe
Removing Toxic and Poisonous Plants
If you’ve made the decision to remove plants that are toxic or poisonous you have to dress for the occasion. Here are the common recommendations for handling toxic plants:
- Heavy duty, nitrile, or rubber gloves. You don’t want to wear fabric gloves. The sap of many plants is a toxic element and can soak into fabric. When done, either wash the gloves in detergent and multiple water rinses or discard them.
- Long-sleeved shirt and pants. Brushing up against many plants with bare arms or legs can have the same toxic results as using your bare hands. It may be hot outside but protect your arms and legs.
- A face mask or possibly a construction-grade face respirator. Some plants have toxic properties that can be inhaled. Even the pollen of some of these plants is dangerous. You may think it’s absurd for anyone to eat some of these plants, but breathing around toxic plants while cutting and pulling on them is inevitable.
- Eye protection. The same stuff that can get into your lungs can get into your eyes. Goggles are good or even a full-face plate.
- Pull them out by the roots. Just cutting down most any plant will eventually allow it to re-grow. Pull them out by the roots.
- Some plants will reseed. A lot of this depends on the time of year, but pulling out a plant can cause some seeds to drop to the ground. Be vigilant and pull out any new growth as time goes on.
- A durable plastic garbage bag or some other way to contain what you cut and pull out of the ground.
- Don’t compost any toxic plants. You may be simply feeding toxic chemicals to your compost heap that will never decompose.
- Don’t burn the plants. The toxins in poisonous plants will fill the air and anyone that inhales the smoke will introduce the toxins to their lungs. Dispose of them either in yard waste taken by your garbage company, or dump them out of the plastic bag into a large hole and bury them. Keep an eye on the area where they’re buried so they don’t reseed. Maybe start a fire over the surface of the ground after you’ve covered them with soil.
- Do some homework before you buy or plant anything from a nursery or online. As we mentioned before, many companies and businesses are not forthcoming with the potential dangers of what they sell.
Be Vigilant but Don’t Get Discouraged
The whole idea here is to protect yourself, your family, pets, and even livestock from the simple and widespread danger of plant toxicity. It’s a fact of nature that many plants are toxic if not poisonous. What’s important is to recognize and understand which plants to avoid or destroy and which to keep or plant.
With that in mind, here are links to some books and field guides to help you identify both poisonous plants and the ones that are safe in your yard and gardens.
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