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How to deal with the toxic beauties in your garden
The Garden Path

How to deal with the toxic beauties in your garden

by Faye Peterson 3 min. 03.07.2022
Some of the most popular plants in your garden have a dark side
Hemlock, the plant that killed Greek philosopher Socrates
Hemlock, the plant that killed Greek philosopher Socrates
Photo credit: Shutterstock

(The paragraph describing Hemlock in this story was corrected)

No one likes to think there is poison in their paradise garden, but mishaps with plants are common. Many of us will have one or two specimens on our patch that, if wrongly handled or ingested, could result in a one-way ticket to hell.

No, the world is not made of cheese and marshmallows. Still, with a few precautionary measures, your dream garden should not become your worst nightmare. Solidly educate visitors and young children to the dangers in your garden. Make sure someone can keep a watchful eye on pets or children. If necessary, cordon off areas or enclose pets, like guinea pigs and rabbits, to prevent them nibbling something naughty.

And because education is key to preventing unnecessary risk or illness, below are some of the most popular and potentially toxic plants to be found in our gardens. But most importantly - enjoy your garden.     

Deadly dudes   

Nicotiana (Tobacco plant)
Gardeners have long used tobacco as an ornamental element. It is no surprise that a plant attributed to causing more than 8 million deaths worldwide can cause some deadly reactions. The trumpet-shaped flowers are lovely, but all parts of the plants can cause skin irritation - and severe illness if ingested.

Nicotiana, plante fatale
Nicotiana, plante fatale

Nerium oleander and Taxus baccata (Yew).
These plants should come with a toxic label attached. Both are low maintenance and excellent for creating hedges or displays in courtyard gardens. But once you discover that oleander has is an in use as an effective rat poison and 50g of yew is lethal for an adult, you quickly acquire respect for these evergreens.

Laburnum (Golden chain tree)
A beautiful tree that can attract the wrong attention. Although rabbits and cats tolerate the tree’s toxins, children and dogs will generally not escape unscathed. All parts are poisonous, but the seed pods are the worst.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
The plant that killed Socrates may be related to the carrot family, but it is definitely not edible. Unless you live on the edge of farmland or fields, I think most of you will not have this growing in your garden. Avoid confusing it with wild carrot (Daucus carota), or Queen Anne's lace (Anthriscus sylvestirs), also known as cow parsley. The purple blotches on the smooth green stems, along with their hollow interior, are good ways of identifying this little devil.

Foxgloves (Digitalis)

Although commonly used in prescription heart medicines, every part of this plant is toxic. Keep dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits and small humans under a watchful eye.

Treat with caution

These beautiful flowers can cause pain. Most of their toxicity is in or around the bulb.  Keep an eye on a digging dog - I speak from experience here.

Lily and Lily of the Valley
There was a time when nearly every other social media post I saw featured a cake or some other such delicacy strewn with lilies. Closer to Mother’s Day the image would change for the preferred choice of flower for gifting here, Lily of the Valley (muguet, in French). Don’t believe what you see! The flowers are not edible for humans or pets - especially cats.

Put it on your cake - but don't eat it
Put it on your cake - but don't eat it

Narcissus (Daffodil) & Hyacinth 
Their pretty colours and happy faces belie the fact they are toxic. Like Tulips, be especially aware of their bulbs.

Hydrangeas and Hellebores
In the past, Hellebore was said to be used to induce vomiting after poisoning - not now! Toxic for cats, dogs, horses and humans. But, damn, they look good.

Clematis & Chrysanthemum
Nooooo! Yes, unfortunately, the climbing clematis and the blousy chrysanthemum are toxic for humans and most animals, including pet rabbits. 

Poppy, Peony and Primrose
Yes, the plant responsible for some of our most potent medicines and narcotics is going to be toxic. What you might not have known that the same goes for the peony and the primrose.

Useful Contacts:
Belgian Poison Control Centre (Luxembourgers welcome) - 8002 5500.
Emergency Vet List Luxembourg.
Emergency Services Number - 112.
Here is a more comprehensive list of potentially poisonous plants.

Last but not least - don’t panic! Most poisonings occur in the home, not outside it and many of us live with toxic plants without any problems. So don’t uproot all your plants in favour of a concrete jungle just yet.

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