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Missouri Environment & Garden



AUTHOR

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Division of Plant Sciences
(573) 882-9631
trinkleind@missouri.edu

Plants That Can Harm

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631
trinkleind@missouri.edu

Published: March 1, 2009

Disclaimer: The following article was written for educational purposes only. Please contact a physician or the nationwide Poison Information Center (800-222-1222) if you suspect someone has eaten a poisonous plant.

The third week of March each year is designated as National Poison Prevention Week and serves as an opportunity to educate the public about the danger of poisonings and how to prevent them. Although plants are an integral part of our life and critical to our well-being, there are a number of plant species that can be harmful because of their toxicity. It has been estimated that more than 700 species of plants growing in North America have caused illness or death in humans and that more than three percent of all poisonings are plant-related. Some poisonous plants have become such an integral part of our lives that many of us have lost track of the fact they are potentially harmful.

A poisonous plant can be defined as “any plant possessing a property injurious to man or animals”. The term “injurious” can imply allergic reactions caused by spores or pollen, skin rashes caused by dermal contact with plants, and internal poisonings cause by ingestion of plant material. It is the latter type of poisoning that causes the greatest concern relative to human safety. Many poisonous plants are of significant medicinal value in that the toxic compound, when administered in small, controlled dosages, has valuable healing properties (e.g. digitalis or belladonna). In other cases the toxic agents in poisonous plants has been isolated and used as an effective insecticides (e.g. pyrethrum).

The substances that cause plants to be poisonous are biologically active chemicals that are formed through many different pathways within plants. Most are considered to be secondary metabolites (by-products) resulting from essential functions of the plant that provide it with valuable side-effects because of their toxicity. For example, a toxic secondary metabolite produced by a plant can increase its chances of survival by deterring animals and insects from using it as a food source. The diversity of toxic compounds in plants is remarkable. Although varied in nature, these toxic compounds can be classified into one of eight different groups all having one thing in common–they interfere with the metabolism of other living organisms, which makes them toxic. For example, the alkaloids represent a large group of toxic compounds contained by many plants (e.g. members of the Solanaceae [Nightshade] family) and are cholinesterase inhibitors that act on the nervous system. Other compounds such as the cardioactive glycosides are steroidal in nature and act as heart stimulant; ingestion of large amounts can lead to heart failure in humans. For a more thorough discussion of the nature of these toxic compounds a comprehensive reference such as A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants (D. Frohne and H. Pfander; Wolfe Publishing Ltd.; London, Eng.) should be consulted.

Poisoning by ingesting plants is much more common among children rather than adults. This partly stems from the fact that children are inquisitive by nature and might be tempted to sample a brightly colored berry or other interesting plant part, when adults would not. Secondly, most poisons are rated in toxicity according to the amount that must be ingested per unit of body weight to produce an effect (i.e. mg active ingredient/ kg body weight). Since children weigh less than adults it takes less of a toxic compound to produce visible symptoms of poisonings in children than in adults. Keeping poisonous plants out of the ready access by children is key to preventing poisoning. Plant poisoning in adults most often results from consuming unknown or incorrectly identified plant material rather than from experimentation. Education concerning which plants are poisonous is key to prevent poisoning. The following table is a partial listing of plants that are known to be poisonous. It was provided by the Missouri Poison Center located at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis (800-392-9111).

Always remember that prevention is the best cure for plant poisonings. The following are a few common sense suggestions that will help:

  • Become familiar with the plants in and around your home (common and scientific names) and know which ones are poisonous. Consult a reliable reference if necessary.
  • Instruct children to never put a plant or plant part in their mouths. Eliminate keep all known poisonous plants from your home or keep them well out of the reach of children.
  • Never store non-food plants in your refrigerator.
  • Never use flowers or other plant parts for food unless you are certain they are non-toxic and their production history is known. Pesticides used on ornamental plants are not necessarily labeled for food plants.
  • Never experiment when it comes to consuming plants of unknown identity or toxicity.

If you think someone has eaten a poisonous plant, immediate action should be taken. While it is important to act quickly it is equally important not to panic. Remove any plant parts from the person’s mouth and give the person a small amount of water to drink. Call the nationwide Poison Information Center at (1-800-222-1222), your local hospital or your local police department (911). Try to identify the plant that was eaten and collect a small sample of the plant, if possible. Give the sample to or identify the plant for the professionals who administer medical treatment to the victim.

Poisonous plants have been a part of our daily lives for years. Their presence is not a cause for alarm as long as we know the dangers involved and are aware of the risk implied by their presence.

Common NameBotanical Name
Apricot pits and leavesPrunus armeniaca
Arrowhead vineSyngonium podophyllum
Avocado peel and pidPersea americana
Autumn crocusColchicum autumnale
AzaleaRhododendron species
Bird of ParadisePoinciana gilliesii
BittersweetSolanum dulcamera
Black nightshadeSolanum nigrum
CaladiumCaladium bicolor
Calla lilyZantedeschia acthoipica
Castor beansRicinus communis
Crabapple seedsMalus species
DaphneDaphne mezereum
Deadly nightshadeAltropa beladonna
Devil’s ivyEpipremnum aureum
Dumb caneDieffenbachia seguine
Elephant’s earAlocasia macrorrhiza
FoxgloveDigitalis purpurea
Goldenchain treeLaburnum anagyroides
Holly berriesIlex species
HyacinthHyacinthus orientalis
HydrangeaHydrangea species
Indian tobaccoLobelia inflata
Iris leaves, roots, and rhizomesIris species
Jequirity bean (rosary pea)Arbus precatorious
JimsonweedDatura species
Jack-in-the-pulpitArisaema triphyllum
Jerusalem cherrySolanum psuedocapsicum
Larkspur Delphinium species
Lily of the valleyConvalleria majalis
May apple (unripe fruit, root, and leaves)Podophyllum peltatum
Mistletoe berriesPhoradendron villosum
MonkshoodAconitnum columbianum
Moonseed berriesMenisperum canadense
Morning gloryIpomea hederacea
OleanderNerium oleander
Peace lilySpathiphyllum species
Pear seedsPyrus species
PeriwinkleVinca species
Plum leaves, stem, bark, and pitsPrunus domestica
Heartleaf philodendronPhilodendron cordatum
Poison ivyToxicodendron rydbergii
Poison hemlock (resembles wild carrot)Conium maculatum
Poison oakRhus diversiloba
Potato plant leavesSolanum tuberosum
PrivetLigustrum species
Raw cassava rootManihot esculenta
Rhubarb leavesRheum rhabarbarum
Split-leaf philodendronMonstera deliciosa
TobaccoNicotiana species
Tomato leavesLycopersicon lycopersicum
Virginia CreeperParthenocissus quinquefolia
Water HemlockCicuta maculata
Wisteria seeds and podsWisteria Species
YewTaxus Species
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REVISED: September 30, 2015