common poisonous plants

Six Common Backyard Plants that Could Kill You

These plants add beauty and interest to your garden, but it’s important to know how to avoid their toxic effects.

By Megan O’Neill

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—For most of us, a backyard garden serves as a sanctuary of beauty and peace. But did you know that, lurking among your beautiful beds, there may be plants whose toxic leaves and berries have been used throughout history to commit murders most foul? In her new book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books, 2009) author Amy Stewart tells the compelling tales of “botanical atrocities”—from the drugging of British soldiers with jimsonweed, to the killing of the Greek philosopher Socrates with poison hemlock. And it turns out many of the plants used in these crimes are still commonly cultivated today by many a backyard gardener.

Before you throw down your spade and run from the garden for good, it’s important to know that even the deadliest of plants is usually harmless unless ingested or otherwise mishandled. “I actually don’t think people should be frightened by these poisonous plants,” says Stewart. As she points out, there are plenty of toxic products in our bathrooms and under the kitchen sink, but we’re not afraid of them. The key is to avoid ingesting these substances and keep them out of reach of children and pets. The same precautions should be followed with poisonous plants. “We just have to remember that most of what comes out of the ground was not intended to be food for people.”

Here six of the most common poisonous plants:

#1: Oleander. One of the most poisonous plants known, this evergreen shrub is commonly grown throughout warmer areas of the U.S. In California, it’s even grown along roadsides and used to decorate highway medians because it’s drought tolerant and deer won't eat it. The showy and often fragrant flowers make this a popular ornamental for backyard landscapes, but care must be used to keep children and animals from eating any part of the plant, as all are poisonous. Ingesting even a small amount of the leaves can be lethal, or cause severe gastrointestinal and cardiac reactions.

Even oleander sap can cause skin irritations, numbness, and eye inflammation if it comes into contact with your hands or skin. If you have kids running around, it might be wise to remove this plant from your yard, as children can be attracted to its bright flowers. Just be sure to wear gloves when pulling it out.

  #2: Castor bean. This popular plant, which is an annual in some areas and a perennial in tropical zones, is grown nationwide. Its multicolored, palmlike leaves and brightly hued, spiny flowers add a tropical punch to landscapes, but the ricin-laced seeds deliver their own pop if ingested. Ricin is known as the most deadly poison the plant world makes; it’s said that eating just one seed can kill a child. The symptoms of poisoning start a few hours after ingestion and include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, severe dehydration, and, potentially, death. Keeping people and animals safe is as easy as stopping the plant from going to seed; just pinch off the pods as soon as they appear. An even safer option: Don’t grow the plant in or around homes with small children.
#3: Daphne. The sweet, strong fragrance of this evergreen shrub’s flowers (which bloom in shades of green, white, or pink) is a welcome sign of spring in warmer areas of the country. Its berries, however, are extremely poisonous, and caution should be used to keep kids from ever popping them into their mouths. Eating even a handful could be killer. While the unassuming size of the plant makes it popular to grow in containers, you may want to plant it in less easily accessible areas instead if you have kids around, or remove it altogether.
#4: Lantana. This perennial flowering plant is hugely popular in southern states and warmer western states like Texas and California. Aromatic flowers in red, orange, and yellow attract the nose and eye, but don’t let the berries tempt your taste buds: They’re most toxic while still green, before they turn a blackish shade, but even eating the darker berries can make you sick. Keep kids away while the berries are green, or remove the plant altogether until children can be trusted not to snack on the shrub.
#5: Yellow jessamine. Also known as Carolina jessamine—the evergreen vine is the state flower of South Carolina—this plant has trumpet-shaped yellow flowers that may look beautiful but, like every other part of this plant, are also deadly. Unfortunately, children may mistake the flowers for honeysuckle and attempt to drink the nectar found in the buds. Though ingesting the plant would likely just make an adult sick, there have been reported cases of children dying after ingestion. If there are young children in your home, you may want to think twice about planting this decorative vine.
#6: Monkshood. The root of this hardy, ornamental perennial flower with blue or yellow buds can easily be mistaken for horseradish—but with deadly consequences. Ingesting several milligrams of the plant’s poison, which is concentrated in the mature tubers, can kill an adult or cause symptoms such as paralysis, nausea, and vomiting. Never leave the bulbs of this plant lying in your garden to tempt hungry animals and children (or horseradish lovers!). If you plan on removing it from your garden, make sure you wear gloves, as simply picking the plant’s leaves with bare hands can allow the toxin to be absorbed through the skin. You’ll feel some tingling followed by numbness and, potentially, cardiac effects as well.


Published on: June 29, 2009

More from our Authors

Ready to turn your tired soil into no-toil garden gold? Learn how you can enjoy bumper crops, less watering and fewer weeds in one easy step.

pretty oleander

Oleander reigns my garden. This plant looks amazing and sets pretty good mood whenever i take a glance at it. But I'm totally aware of the hazard that it brings. jonathan budd mastermind

Poisonous plants

You left out a really obvious one - Digitalis, also known as foxglove. Even one floret can kill a child if ingested, and they are a very common plant. The pretty flowers are very tempting to children as they fit so neatly over a finger, hence the name. I let them grow in my garden, but I do not have children. My parents were very good about teaching us about what not to eat. (The glistening red berries of the evergreen yew look delicious, but they are extremely toxic, as is the rest of the plant.)

toxic plants

In Arizona, we have regular poisonings from Oleander, which is everywhere because it's pretty, versatile and almost impossible to kill once established. Newspaper reports included one person who committed suicide by making a tea from the leaves. The saddest was a high school girl who was horsing around with her boyfriend on the way home from school in the 70s and fell down a canal bank into some cut oleander stumps. She died within a week, poisoned by splinters in her face that didn't show on xray. Her parents had lost their other daughter the year before from an auto accident.

I knew of one case where a housewife bit off a dieffenbachia leaf when she didn't want to spend time finding the scissors and nearly suffocated when her throat swelled shut almost immediately.

Some kids aren't prone to putting things in their mouths and noses, but some do it constantly. Ask any ER doctor.

I am just wondering......

if everyone is supposed to be a PERFECT parent why are so many children hospitalized each year? What parent can watch every child 24/7. The comment about giving up parenting and sticking with gardening is just rediculous. Most parents do everything they can to protect their children, but still many children are hospitalized or worse yet die each year. This is not due to neglect, but because children will be children and accidents happen. I am a grandmother and knew that potatoe foliage was poisonous, but never gave a thought to sprouts from those same potatoes! Keep up the good work.....we can all learn something from your articles.....even those that seem to think they know everything.

Oh, come on!

The headline of this article is laughable. Just yesterday, a friend and I were joking about the absurd teasers on network news shows, and she came up with this one: "Your houseplants could kill you -- stay tuned!" If you're letting your kids eat the shrubbery, then you should stick to gardening and give up on the parenting.

monkshood (Aconite)

One would have to be quite unobsrvant to mistake foliage of Aconite for horse radish with its large flat fronds. Monkshood has foliage that looks like delphinium and a similar blossom which blooms in the fall not midsummer .
Common nightshade is toxic as well as hemlock berries from this cmmon evergreen, not to be confused with juniper berries which are used to flavor gin. The foliage of the potato plant, also a member of the nightshade famly is toxic and that reason we don't eat the eyes or shoots of our potatoes. Also the leaves of rhubarb can give one a large dose of oxalic acid.
Now if you want some tasty weeds, try purslane , just as good as beet greens or lambs's quarter which tastes like spinach but is eaten in modertion because of the oxalic acid content. ( See Euell Gibbons "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" a handy reference for wild foods. I use daylily buds in my stir fry too.county

Start Your Wellness Journey!
Sign up for updates on Rodale Wellness and get your FREE wellness journal to help you find your path to vibrant health. Click here to start your unique journey!

Free Newsletter
Sign up for our FREE newsletters to stay up to date on all of our wellness news.

  The Daily Fix
Useful news and practical tips to help you live a healthy life on a healthier planet.

  Wellness in Action
Find your path to vibrant health, and get your free wellness journal as our thanks!

You may unsubscribe at any time.

Your Privacy Rights. About Us.