While we think of winter as a time of rest for the garden, the earth begs to differ! From the viewpoint of nature, winter is its busiest time. Its work just goes unseen because it is in the dark, underground and out-of-sight. Living organisms are expending great amounts of energy to prepare for the coming growing season. They must be prepared when the amount of light is there to support growth. Each family and species of plant has its own individual timetable. They all know what to do.
Plants are somewhat like people in that experience teaches. For the sake of survival, some plants have taken on some dangerous characteristics that make them less desirable, or, at least, cautionary, in the landscape. In fact, some are downright deadly, or, at least, can make one very ill. Some unlikely suspects are in our gardens, and it might be good to know a bit more about them.
This article just touches on a few plants that are common in Indiana landscaping that may have toxic elements that demand awareness. It is not written to scare you, but to inform you as to which plants might be considered risky and which plants are better not handled without gloves or should be left just for outdoor enjoyment.
Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) – Widely mentioned in the fairy lore of the British Isles, bluebells are a sign of spring and a beautiful sight to see! In Finnish folk lore, fairies helped mice by making the bluebells ring when predators were nearby. Although these thoughts are lovely, bluebells are highly toxic to humans, dogs, cats, horses and cattle. They contain scillaren, a glycoside that can cause irregular heartbeat. If you are a wild food forager, the bulbs are sometimes mistaken for wild onions. While Virginia Bluebells are considered edible, make sure of the species prior to consuming and make sure you understand proper plant preparation to make it edible.
Daffodil (Narcissus pseudo -narcissus) – We can’t wait for these bulbs to bloom, the harbingers of spring and warmer weather. Its name, Narcissus, is rooted in the Greek word, narcao, which is also the root word for the English word, narcotic. Handle bulbs and blooms with care. The bulbs contain lycorine, a chemical that can cause paralysis of the central nervous system. All parts of the daffodil have toxicity, although one is not likely to become sick unless they are eaten. Do not eat any part of the plant and best to handle with gloves. The dust from daffodil bulbs is also toxic to dogs. While not life threatening, ingestion of the plant can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) – I remember as a child picking this flower with its dainty white bells and long graceful leaves. Today, few of us know the folk tales that warned people of the danger of white-belled plants like Lily of the Valley, snowdrops and white lilacs. Despite its beauty, all parts of Lily of the Valley plants are highly poisonous to both animals and people, containing a cardio glycosides. More than five of its red berries are enough to endanger a child’s life. Skin contact can cause severe dermatitis. Best to let this one stay outside.
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) – We love its spiky stems full of bell-shaped flowers of bright colors that can grace the back row of the garden. One Norwegian folktale talks about how the fairies taught the foxes to ring the bells to warn other foxes that hunters were nearby. An English tale says that fairies taught foxes how to put the bells on their paws so they could walk silently when raiding the chicken coup. Those who have studied folk medicine know that foxglove has digitoxin, a poison that impedes blood circulation and slows the heart until it stops. Digitalis is an ingredient in some heart medicines today. The level of toxicity in the plant is high enough to have also been labeled by folk history as “dead man’s bells”. Best to leave this plant in the garden and not handle it without gloves. While poisonings from this plant are considered very rare, handling or eating the plant or making tea from it could be dangerous. It could be fatal for your dog to eat it.
Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.) – Oh, how we love these spiky or floppy heads of flowerets in our gardens! Their showy blooms entertain us year round and make beautiful cut flowers for vases. Color in some varieties is based on aluminum content in the soil. In folk lore, blue hydrangeas are supposed to be signs of luck; pink ones warn of bad fortune in your future. White ones are the most common and likely the most popular. Despite our sunny disposition today about these lovely flowers, when one looks back to the language of flowers in Victorian times, a hydrangea given in a bouquet meant “heartlessness” or “coldness” and might be sent to a woman by a rejected lover. A hydrangea planted by a front door guaranteed that your daughters would never marry. Hydrangeas contain low levels of cyanogenic glycoside called hydrangin, not enough to be a threat unless you handle large quantities of them. They are not edible. Symptoms of poisoning might include nausea, vomiting and sweating or contact dermatitis. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac (Toxicodendron spp.) – Toxicodendron now replaces that botanical family name Rhus. These vining plants are all closely related. Poison Ivy is especially likely to show up where landscaping materials such as mulch have been applied, so keep an eye out for it and try to eliminate it using sprays or at least with gloves on. No one needs the itchy blisters is causes on the skin. These plants are not considered poisons, but they do excrete urushiol, an irritating oil that the body reacts to in the form of a rash. Inhaling burning poison ivy can cause breathing difficulty. The American Academy of Dermatology Association ** says that the more exposure you get to these plants, the worse your allergic reaction may be. Author Fez Inkwright * notes that you can test a plant for urushiol by wrapping a white paper around a stem or leaf and crush the plant. If the paper stains with a brown mark, the plant holds the oil.Violet (Viola spp.) – Wait, why do I include violets? They are edible, right? Yes, most violets are edible and contain lots of vitamin C. I have eaten them. I love them sugared or added to salads. Still, there are some things to remember if eating violets or pansies. There are about 550 species of the viola genus in the world. Wild foragers say yes, eat the blue and white flowered species, both flowers and leaves, but not the roots. Don’t eat the yellow flowered species. The common blue violet is nearly considered a weed because it grows just about everywhere in this part of the country. Identifying the species you wish to consume would be a good idea. Violets also have many look-alikes in the plant kingdom, so put caution in your bag for wild edibles.
Yew (Taxus baccata) – I once lived in a house that came with big yew bushes in the front yard. They were a common site for houses built and landscaped in the early 1970’s. I never thought much about it until a veterinarian told me that the seeds inside those beautiful red berries were toxic enough to kill a horse. No wonder yews are common trees in European cemeteries and in even older cultures, such as Roman, Greek, and Egyptian burial sites! They are often talked about in grisly old folk tales and ghost stories. Only the arils, the fleshy red seed coverings are non-toxic. The coating on the seed itself induces vomiting when eaten by mammals. Eating a small quantity of leaves can be fatal to humans or animals. The plant contains alkaloids known as taxines. Research at England’s Kew Gardens show that taxine B is suspected of being one of the most poisonous. Taxine is present in the bark, leaves and seeds of yew.
*Inkwright, Fez. Botanical Curses and Poisons, The Shadow Lives of Plants. 2021. Liminal 11, Turkey.