There may be harmful plants in your garden...

By Time of article published Jan 15, 2005

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By Kay Montgomery and Carolynn Home

How much do you know about poisonous plants in your garden? Most of the plants classified “poisonous” contain harmful chemicals that can cause discomfort and distress, especially in small children and animals.

Certain chemicals in plants poison on contact with the skin such as stinging nettles. More serious poisoning takes place when plants are eaten in large quantities. As children don't tend to ingest large quantities, most fatalities come from people mistaking poisonous plants with food plants.

For this reason it is important to be able to recognise the most commonly poisonous plants in your garden and teach your children to avoid them.

The 10 most common plants involved in plant poisoning cases are: syringa berries, elephant's ear leaves, oleander leaves, arum leaves, delicious monster leaves, thorn apple seeds or malpitte (Datura stamonium), cycad seeds, lucky bean seeds (Abrus precatorius), dumb cane leaves (Dieffenbachia spp), Jerusalem cherry fruits (Solanum pseudocapsicum) and latex from poinsettias.

Statistics show that in the big local city hospitals, plants are responsible for less than five percent of all poisoning cases which arrive at their emergency wards.

Commonly a frantic mother phones a poison unit to say that her 15-month-old baby has just chewed the leaf of an elephant's ear, and what should she do?

The diagnosis is often confirmed by the sound of screams in the background.

In the case of the elephants ear (either Alocasia macrorrhiza or Colocasia esculenta), it is known that the sap and root stock are indeed irritant poisons which can cause immense harm to the eyes.

However, the acrid taste of the elephant's ear normally means that a child very rarely consumes anything near the quantity deemed dangerous. The best response to “an elephant ear scare” is to get the infant straight to a hospital where qualified staff can decide whether or not a stomach pump is necessary.

Parents who bring howling children into the hospital often are too distraught to have noticed the plant, simply don't know its name or have forgotten to bring in a sample of the plant.

In more complicated cases, hospitals rely on volunteer specialists who have training in taxonomic botany. Once the plant has been identified, the hospital is able to look up the active poison, and administer an antidote. The good news is that fatalities from plant poisoning are rare.

The extent of plant poisoning is varied. With children under five, the poisoning is normally accidental. However, when it comes to teenagers, it is invariably deliberate experimentation. In search of an inexpensive “trip” with they can consume something potentially dangerous.

The most extreme and frivolous cases of plant poisoning have invariably become local legend. Botanists often refer to the story of a man who collected apple pips and stored them in a cup.

One day he consumed all the pips in a burst of enthusiasm and promptly died. Medical experts confirm that apple pips do indeed contain the mildest traces of cyanide. Eaten on their own, they present absolutely no threat to humans. In extreme circumstances of high consumption they can be fatal.

Other frivolous cases involve northern suburbs hostesses out to impress their guests by adding brightly coloured flowers to the salad. On a celebrated occasion, a delightful bunch of hydrangea flowers were enough to give the “in crowd” a bad bout of gastroenteritis.

If you suspect poisoning by ingestion of plant matter, follow these instructions:

- If the case is not too severe call Netcare 911 Poison Centre on 0800-333-444 for advice. This national call centre deals with problems across South Africa.

- If the case is severe, get the poisoned person to hospital as soon as possible or call the national Netcare Emergency Line 082-911 for an ambulance.

- Do not induce vomiting as this can cause more harm than good in some cases.

- Take a sample of the plant matter ingested for identification purposes and give it to the emergency medical personnel at the hospital.

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