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.