Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
June, 2004
Regional Report

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Angel's trumpet is a beautiful example of a poisonous landscape plant.

Dangerous Beauties

While I was working for the City of Napa, way back when, there was a kafuffle about some cows that had eaten some oleander (Nerium oleander) cuttings that had been hauled from the city corporation yard to a nearby field. The cows sickened but eventually revived. The oleander was thought to be the culprit. There are many common plants that have toxic parts, and most likely you already grow some of them.

A Little Caution, Please
Oleander has the reputation of being poisonous, but you would have to eat a bale full of the stuff to suffer from the effects. However, if you burn the prunings, the smoke can cause severe irritation of mucous membranes. Even drinking water from a vase that held oleander can cause poisoning. Oleander is commonly used by the State of California on freeway medians.

Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia) is another commonly known poisonous plant. Artist Georgia O'Keefe frequently painted the amber-colored flowers for their elegant form. All parts of this plant are poisonous if ingested, yet you see them planted everywhere in the bay area.

Common, hardy, lantana also is poisonous. The leaves cause dermatitis, and within two hours of ingesting the berries, the victim experiences gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and dilated pupils.

I knew I hated privet (Ligustrum) for a reason; ingesting the berries may cause headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, and low blood pressure. In severe cases, muscle spasms and convulsions can occur. Not to mention the nasty headache that privet gives you when every single one of the fallen purple berries sprout in your garden.

Euphorbia, a huge family of plants including poinsettia and crown of thorns, has a milky sap that is very irritating to the skin and eyes. It's no wonder that gopher plant (E. lathyris) is used to keep moles and gophers from your garden. The caustic sap is supposed to have a detrimental effect on underground pests.

Even the elegant wisteria is reported to cause gastric irritation when the seeds are ingested. The seeds, pods, and bark contain a toxic resin.

Lupine and bleeding heart (Dicentra) both contain an alkaloid that causes respiratory depression and skin irritation.

One of my favorite plants, helleborus, can cause a slow, irregular pulse, salivation, abdominal pain, and respiratory failure. How can something so beautiful be so deadly?

Naked Lady (Amaryllis belladonna) is another killer; all parts of this beautiful, pink flower bulb are poisonous if ingested. Yet you see them everywhere in the late summer.

When I planted the hundreds of tulips that grace the gardens of Sunset Magazine, I always had to wear gloves because the constant contact with the bulbs gave me dermatitis. The most severe case of dermatitis I ever had came from Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria). My poor fingers blistered and peeled down to the bone!

What's to be done about all of this murderous vegetation lying in wait to attack and kill? Always know exactly what you are planting in your garden. Get yourself a good garden reference book and use it. If you have children or pets, make sure that what you plant in your garden is safe.

Unless of course, there is a bit of Lizzy Borden in you....

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