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A roll call of plants that can be hazardous to health

When grandchildren visit, or you adopt a puppy or cat, it's smart -- and a moral obligation -- to figure out what can poison them.

The world is a lot different when you spend time one foot off the floor, especially if you explore by mouth. Babies taste-test some awful things, and you don't want to know what dogs eat (or maybe you do). So when small people or new animals are coming, child-proof or pet-proof the house.

Plants are my business, so I will focus on some that are truly threatening, and others that merit some caution.

First, please don't overreact and throw out everything listed as "toxic" in every article ever written. "Toxicity" is the degree to which a substance is able to damage an exposed organism, or part of an organism.

Many things are listed as toxic that pose little or no real risk. Authors and researchers have to err on the side of caution, sometimes with legal liability in mind. Lists of "toxic" plants include a huge percentage of our house and garden plants, and if we're going to shun them all we'd best give up the hobby.

>Toxicity of common houseplants

Disclaimer: I am not a physician or toxicologist, although my information always comes from science-based sources. If you have concerns about possible poisoning, or questions about plants or other substances, call the poison center at (800) 222-1222.

*Amaryllis: The Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) includes Narcissus (daffodils). Paperwhites are in this category, too. They all contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, found mostly in the bulb but somewhat in the leaves.

Eating large quantities causes diarrhea and vomiting. Florists sometimes experience "daffodil itch," a dermatitis from handling lots of them. In one 2009 report, schoolchildren in England fell ill from eating soup in which a daffodil bulb was cooked, mistaken for an onion.

I knew two dear naughty dogs once who ate a bag of daffodils, with very messy results. The kids and the dogs lived. Moral of the story: Don't cook or chew the amaryllis or daffodil bulbs, but grow as many as you want.

*Cyclamen: Beautiful cyclamen are fine houseplants and some are hardy perennials, in the primrose family. Their bulbs and rhizomes can cause a "serious purgative effect." Not fun. But since the poisonous parts are underground, it's unlikely they will be eaten. No need to avoid it; just curb your appetite.

*Poinsettia and kin: The huge Euphorbia family includes poinsettias, the houseplant Crown of Thorns and many great perennials. They all contain a white sap that can cause skin irritation for some people. Poinsettias got the reputation of toxicity based on hearsay, and studies have shown the plant not to be severely poisonous. Don't eat them; nausea and vomiting could result.

One member of this family concerns me though -- the houseplant Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Mother-of-Thousands, Devil's Backbone). The plant grows tiny plantlets on the leaf edges, that drop off for propagation, and could be picked up by pets' tongues or curious children. The leaves and stems contain a cardiac glycoside (Daigremontianin). Pet owners and nannies should choose other plants.

*English ivy (Hedera helix): Eating English ivy leaves and berries can seriously poison humans or animals, and the sap causes weeping blisters on some people with sensitive skin. The berries are bitter so most people don't eat them, but don't let any creature chew this plant inside or out.

*Old familiar plants: Caladium, anthurium, philodendron and dieffenbachia (dumbcane) are traditional plants that have some toxicity, but I wouldn't hesitate to use them. Good old philodendrons contain oxalates; eating them can cause painful burning and swelling of the mouth and throat.

The equally ubiquitous dumbcane (dieffenbachia) is so called because painful swelling of the mouth and throat occurs immediately after chewing on it.

Chewing caladiums causes burning and irritation of the lips or tongue. Anthurium irritates mouths and throats, but the effect comes on so quickly that few creatures go beyond the first nibble. If you own these plants, just keep them away from voracious chewers.

>Seriously dangerous

*Datura and Brugmansia: Whether you call them Angel's Trumpet, Devil's Trumpet, Jimsonweed or Thorn apple, these plants, however beautiful, can be deadly. They contain atropine and other alkaloids that are associated with hallucinations, delirium, coma, murders and suicides -- with an especially potent effect on children. Outdoors, members of the plant family can poison horses, cattle and other animals.

*Solanum (nightshade): Are you surprised that deadly nightshade is in the same family as potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes? They all have potentially toxic parts; you'd get sick from eating the green part under the skin of raw potatoes, for instance.

But deadly nightshade is the really twisted sister -- a common garden weed that is notorious for poisoning animals and humans throughout history and folklore. One decorative nightshade is now sold for its beauty -- with dark purple berries, variegated or purple leaves -- but those juicy berries contain the poisons atropine and scopolamine.

The Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) has been sold for decades as a pretty houseplant with red berries, but those tempting-looking "cherries" may make children or pets who eat them ill with stomach pain and vomiting. Be extremely careful of nightshades.

*Oleander: This plant is beautiful but deadly. In nature, animals avoid it. A child can die from eating one leaf. This is one case where owning something beautiful may not be worth the risk.

Outdoors, many other plants are listed as toxic, which might mean they cause a stomachache or skin rash, or they might cause kidney failure or death. Know the Poison Control number, and don't let pets and children eat anything that is not planted or purchased as food.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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