Poisonous Plants FAQ

Everyone knows that various kinds of plants are poisonous and most people can name some of the best known culprits – and identify them too. However, when it comes to kids and poisonous plants, you can never really know too much about the possible dangers!

What sort of problems can poisonous plants cause?

There are three main dangers – skin irritation, eye irritation and poisoning. The actual effects vary with the type of plant – some kinds being much more dangerous than others – how much of its poison is involved and the sensitivity of the individual affected, ranging from very mild symptoms to severe illness or even death in some cases.

But how many commonly grown garden plants are poisonous?

The Royal Horticultural Society list over 60, but they make the point very clearly that all of them are safe to grow, provided they are treated with respect – which obviously largely translates into teaching your children not to eat them!

Many of the most commonplace plants fall into this category, so it’s well worth trying to learn a few of the more obvious ones – which include the Laburnum tree (with its poisonous seeds) and Foxgloves (which contain the powerful chemical, digitalin). However, the potato is perhaps one of the most surprising names to find on the list – though when you realise that it’s a relative of Deadly Nightshade, the inclusion of the humble ‘spud’ makes a lot more sense. You can safely eat the familiar tubers, of course – unless they’re green – but avoid the flowers and, most poisonous of all, the fruits, at all costs!

What sort of symptoms should I look out for?

The signs of skin irritation are usually pretty obvious. However, some kinds of plants, such as Rue (Ruta graveolens) and the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) – which is a notifiable weed – have an unusual and particularly unpleasant effect, their sap causing affected skin to blister horribly when it is exposed to sunlight.

The symptoms of poisoning obviously depend on the particular plant that has been eaten, but the onset of stomach pains, vomiting or diarrhoea are all typical signs, though occasionally symptoms can also include convulsions or an irregular heartbeat.

What first aid treatment should I give?

Wash any remaining plant sap off the skin as quickly as possible, try to encourage your child not to scratch it and then keep a careful watch to see what happens. Most minor cases of skin irritation from plants settle down on their own quite quickly, but if the affected area becomes painful, overly-hot and inflamed or starts to blister – or if you have any concerns – then seek proper medical help without delay.

If you suspect that your child has eaten something poisonous – and the youngster is conscious and not showing any obvious signs of discomfort or pain – get him or her to drink a glassful of water or diluted juice as soon as possible and then ring your GP or medical centre for advice. The more information you can give them, the better – the name of the plant, how much has been eaten and any obvious signs of ill-health. If you do end up being advised to bring your child to the surgery or hospital, try to take a sample of the plant with you – leaves and any flowers or berries that are present.

What about my pets?

Pets are often susceptible too – and sometimes to unusual things; be particularly careful with hedge clippings and dug-up roots as dogs seem especially prone to chewing them and there have been some cases reported of deaths as a result.

If you think your pet has eaten something poisonous – call your vet; knowing what and how much it’s eaten will be useful – and take along samples of the offending plant if you can.

How can I avoid poisoning problems?

Aside of teaching your youngsters which plants to avoid touching – and not to put anything in their mouths – there are three main ways to get around the potential problem.

Firstly, don’t plant anything poisonous to start with. It might be easier than you think; since 1995, the Horticultural Trade Association (HTA) have been following a voluntary code of practice – drawn up in association with the National Poisons Unit, the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew Gardens. As a result, in garden centres which are HTA members, the labels of 115 types of plants which are known to be irritant, poisonous or likely to provoke an allergic reaction, are clearly marked, to give you plenty of warning.

Secondly, if you already have poisonous plants in your garden, encourage your children to wear long sleeves and gloves when they’re working around them.

Thirdly, it’s a great idea to learn to identify as many poisonous garden plants and wildflowers as you can. Not only will knowing what to look out for make you feel much happier, but with a bit of ingenuity you can turn it into a very useful educational experience with your kids too.

One thing’s for sure, if there was ever a case of “better safe than sorry” – then this is it!

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