Tag Archive | Poisonous

Poisonous Garden

We often hear of people trying to make gardens safe for children and pets. However, there are so many potentially toxic plants that, if you were determined to eliminate every edible hazard, you wouldn’t have much of a garden. In addition to plants like nicotiana and oleander, which are poisonous in every part, there are some plants that have both edible and toxic components, such as tomato and rhubarb. The tomato fruit is safe, as are the red rhubarb stems. But eating the leaves of these plants can cause nausea, convulsions, coma, and in extreme cases, death. Similarly, apricots, peaches, and plums are fine, but their seeds are not, and the bark and leaves of the trees that bear them can be dangerous, too.

Potentially dangerous parts of ornamentals include daffodil bulbs; clematis leaves; the leaves and flowers of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea; leaves and stems of wild black cherry (Prunus serotina); chokecherry (P. virginiana), and pin or wild red cherry (P. pennsylvanica).

Also on the list are English ivy berries; the corms and seeds of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale); the stems, flowers, and leaves of monkshood (Aconitum spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum); the leaves and flowers of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), and truth to tell, several hundred more.

Instead of trying to keep poisons out, we should focus on teaching your children not to put random pickings from the garden — or anywhere else — into their mouths.


And, speaking of poison, did you know that you can get a poison-ivy rash in the winter? Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American trailing or climbing vine, and occasionally a shrub. Every portion, including roots and stems, contains an oil called urushiol, which is capable of producing a nasty dermatitis even in winter.

Although in winter the plant is without its distinctive three leaflets, the bare vine can be recognized by the hairy appearance of its brown, leafless stem, which can scale trees to great heights. The numerous dark rootlets and fibers make it look fuzzy.

Urushiol from the stem and rootlets can remain on tree bark even after the vine has been removed, so if you get the rash and can’t remember seeing any likely cause, the problem may be your firewood.

Poison ivy’s garb at other times includes a handsome crimson leaf in fall (often tempting unwary flower-arrangers), tiny green flowers in spring, and white grape-like berries in late summer that may linger through winter. This fruit is a valuable food for birds, which, unaffected by its oil, help spread the plants when the seeds pass through their system.


Agatha Christie, Zombies, and Deadly Nightshade

“Belladonna is a poisonous plant with a long history of use by humans as a beauty aid, as a medicine and as a murder weapon.” So begins the second chapter (Chapter B) in the book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup.

As gardeners, it’s fun when our passion for plants intersects with other areas of our daily life. In my case, that means books and reading. This particular little volume got my attention because, as an admirer of Dame Agatha Christie and her many novels, I’m always intrigued by the inspiration and ideas of great writers. The book contains a chapter on each of 14 poisons that are used extensively in the Agatha Christie novels — nine of which come directly from the garden. The other five are chemical compounds.

Each chapter describes the poison in question, how it’s obtained, the effects on the human body, and medical applications. There are also descriptions of real-life cases of murder using the poison and, of course, instances when the poison has been used in the Agatha Christie books. It’s particularly fascinating to read about people using many of these poisons as dietary supplements and for cosmetic purposes.



Belladonna is a member of the family Solanaceae, which also includes mandrake and datura. All of these plants are well-known in the world of witchcraft, but their gentle family members (potatoes and tomatoes) are more well-known to the rest of us. The mandrake may be the most famous of the evil side of the family, mentioned in the Bible and, more recently, in the Harry Potter books.

Datura’s poisons are found primarily in the flowers and seeds, and has a variety of common names like thorn apple (because of appearance of the fruit) and moonflower (because it’s flowers open at night). The datura strammonium, known as jimsonweed, was responsible for a mass poisoning of soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia. In Haiti, datura is known as the zombie cucumber, and the book takes some time to describe the two-step process in creating a zombie.

Some of the other plant-based poisons in the book:  hemlock, opium, digitalis, monkshood, and ricin. It’s a fun read and will give you a greater respect when handling those lovely plants you find in your garden and nature.

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed seed pod

Jimson Weed seed pod

Fun books about plants

wickedplantssmNote that I didn’t title this post “Fun Gardening Books”, because the books I’m reading really have nothing to do with gardening. “Wicked Plants – A Book of Botanical Atrocities” is a fascinating read. Who hasn’t read an old mystery thriller where someone was slipped some deadly nightshade, or wondered about the ingredients used in the potions in Professor Snape’s classroom in the Harry Potter books? Author Amy Stewart draws on history, medicine, science, and legend to create the most delightful little snippets about plants, shrubs, trees, roots, and other myriad specimens from the plant world.


  • The deranged behavior that led to the Salem witch trials may have been caused by ERGOT (Claviceps purpura), a fungus that grows on rye and causes wild hallucinations
  • MONKSHOOD (Aconitum napellus) contains a toxin so powerful that Nazi scientists used it in poisoned bullets
  • The First Sacred War (595-585 BC) is believed by some historians to have been won after a Greek military alliance poisoned the water supply of the city of Kirrha with HELLEBORE (Helleborus spp.).
  • The KGB used ricin, the poison in CASTOR BEAN (Ricinus communis), to murder communist defectors.
  • WH I T E SNA K E RO O T (Eupatorium rugosum) causes cows to produce poison milk, resulting in the deadly illness called milk sickness that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother

When you need a break from weeding or planting or fertilizing, grab a cold beverage and this fun book in your favorite patch of shade this summer.

I’m next going to tackle Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanist – The Plants That Create the World’s Best Drinks”.

Written and posted by Vicki