Santa and relatives were very good to me this year as I received a surfeit of books and tools for the garden. One of the books, Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, was a real eye opener as I never realized how dangerous and deadly are many of the plants that reside in our garden. I knew about the obvious ones like foxglove and daffodils, but had no idea that the vast majority of things that are planted in my yard can cause pain, injury and death.
I guess I should not be too surprised as nature has a unique way of protecting itself. Plants are like any living creature in that their primary purpose is to reproduce and will do anything necessary to enable that primal function. As a result, plants have evolved with many adaptations that tell potential predators (including us) to stay away. Needles on cacti keep away curious paws and tongues, nasty alkaloids in leaves keep munching bugs (and humans) at bay and other chemicals make plants hard to even touch.
A brief inventory of my toxic gardens shows that the list is not pretty: monkshood (very toxic, contains the poison aconitine); English ivy (berries can cause delirium/respiratory problems; leaf sap irritates skin); philodendron (calcium oxalates in leaves cause abdominal pain); holly (berries contain ilicin poison that disrupts digestive tract and can kill a child); rhubarb (high levels of oxalic acid can cause death); privet (Leaves and fruit contain several toxic gastrointestinal glycosides (e.g., ligustrin, syringin)); death cap mushroom (toxic to kidneys, liver; responsible for 90 percent of all mushroom related fatalities); lupine (Lupine toxicity is due to the alkaloid D-lupanine, which is concentrated in seed pods. death can occur within hours); sweet woodruff (used in May wine, high doses can cause paralysis, coma, death); azalea, mountain laurel, rhododendron (contains poison grayanotoxin causing heart problems, dizziness, vomiting); hellebore (sap irritates skin, ingestion can cause convulsions); hydrangea (flowers contain cyanide); opium poppy (opiates used for painkillers or as narcotic); lily of the valley (cardiac glycosides in leaves, toxic berries); bleeding heart (toxic alkaloids causing seizures, respiratory problems); sweet pea (all parts poisonous); tulips and hyacinths (dermatitis causing dust on bulb); chrysanthemum (severe allergic reactions); poison ivy (produces urushiol, an irritating oil); lilies (toxic to cats); amaryllis (bulb toxic causing vomiting, diarrhea); Virginia creeper (contains oxalate crystals that can cause irritation and possibly skin rash); anemone (ingestion causes violent muscular contractions, bloody colics, respiratory and cardiac disorders); buttercup (a toxic glycoside effects the entire gastrointestinal tract causing protracted bloody diarrhea); and iris (poisonous rhizomes).
Now I have not mentioned the deadly nightshades like tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, which make up the vast majority of my vegetable garden in the summer. As long as you focus on the fruit you will be fine (unless you eat greenish-looking raw potatoes that have been in the sun too long or a raw habanero (capsicum chinense) pepper). And we didn’t even consider the annuals as part of this exercise. I think the Addams family would feel right at home in my yard as well as Miss Marple.
So my world view of the garden has changed. While I do love to walk through my garden letting my worries fade away I now realize that many of my chlorophyll-filled friends are packing some serious heat and will release it if threatened. And my carnivorous plants (pitcher plants, Venus fly traps, South African sundews, bladderworts and butterworts) are well-fed and small enough so I don’t need to worry about a Little Shop of Horrors moment. At least for now.