OUT IN THE YARD: Taking care about ‘Wicked Plants’

Published 12:21 am Sunday, June 12, 2016

By Melissa Starr

Did you know that some of the plants you have in your home or yard could cause death or serious illness if eaten by humans or pets?  Last month, I had the privilege of attending a workshop by Amy Stewart titled “Wicked Plants.” She has found that plants have been responsible for many deaths including Lincoln’s mother and Socrates.

In 399 BC, Socrates, a Greek philosopher, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”  He was put to death by drinking poison made from Poison Hemlock.  This biennial weed looks a lot like parsley or carrot ferns when young, but if eaten, it will cause paralysis and death within hours if not treated. I have personally not seen this plant in our area, but it is reported to grow in central Texas and many other states.

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In the 1800s, many people, cattle, and horses died from a mysterious illness.  The cattle and horses would stagger like they were drunk until they died.  People would suffer from weakness, vomiting, tremors, and delirium. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of this illness, called milk sickness, when he was only nine years old.  Even though a few doctors recognized the cause of the disease in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1920s that snakeroot was widely recognized as the cause of this disease.  When cattle grazed on this plant, the toxins would pass into their milk and meat and sicken all who consumed these products.  Snakeroot is still found growing the eastern United States and in the South today.

Some popular landscape plants in our area are also highly toxic.  Oleander, if eaten by people or animals, will cause nausea, vomiting, severe weakness, irregular pulse, and a decreased heart rate that can lead to death.  The castor bean plant’s seeds contain ricin, a deadly poison, and the sago palm plant’s leaves and seeds contain carcinogens and neurotoxins that have poisoned people and animals when eaten.  Another plant to keep away from pets is the lily.  When cats eat lilies, they experience kidney failure and death.  Gardeners beware of the Angel Trumpet.  This beautiful plant is highly toxic if eaten, but the toxins can also enter the bloodstream if gardeners consume food and do not wash their hands after handling the plants. 

There are many other plants that contain poisons, but if you have small children or pets, do your research before landscaping your yard.  Also, teach your children to not eat any plant material unless they ask you if it is safe.  For more information, visit www.wickedplants.com.

Please note that the Jefferson County Fruit and Vegetable Show has been postponed until October 15, 2016. Jefferson County Certified Master Gardener, Melissa Starr, can be reached at melynstarr@hotmail.com or call Texas A & M AgriLife Extension office at 409-835-8461.