Indoor plants bring a touch of the garden into your home, plus they can help improve air quality and humidity levels. Houseplants also may defuse stress and reduce sickness. With all the positive qualities plants afford, it’s easy to overlook what can be a more sinister side.
In some plants, toxicity lurks quietly beneath a pretty exterior. Different houseplants disperse toxicity through different means, such as sap from broken stems, contact with leaves or, more frequently, ingestion. While it’s unlikely you’ll get an urge to taste-test your houseplants, you should be aware of potential toxicity of your greenery if you share living quarters with young children, elderly parents with dementia, or pets.
Symptoms of plant toxicity vary from a mild rash, to vomiting, to diarrhea, to blindness, to heart arrhythmia, to paralysis, to – in the rarest cases – death. Different people may react to plant compounds differently, similar to an allergic reaction. Where one person develops inflammation that lingers, another may only have a mild rash that quickly dissipates. In other cases, the reaction is consistent among all individuals.
The most typical houseplant toxicity reaction is dermatitis – some kind of rash that might also feature stinging, burning, redness or itchiness. Another large group of houseplants contains calcium oxalate crystals. Eating a leaf from these plants is similar to chewing a piece of fiberglass. The crystals stab you, producing pain and swelling in the mouth, tongue, throat and stomach. Strongest reactions involve breathing difficulties. Some plants possess a stronger toxicity that interferes with breathing, heart rhythms, or nerve or kidney function.
With many plants, to suffer the most severe reaction, you’d have to ingest a huge portion of a plant (or several plants). For instance, amaryllis bulbs are poisonous, producing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but the majority of a bulb would have to be consumed to produce symptoms.
Other plants, like poinsettia, have been wrongly labeled as poisonous when, in fact, they aren’t. While some individuals may have an allergic reaction to the sap, most don’t. Poinsettias do, however, belong to a plant family that contains strongly toxic members, like the lesser candelabra tree , which causes a toxic reaction if you merely smell the vapors from a cut or broken stem.
Minimize Toxic Reactions
Whether you’re watering, repotting, or simply admiring your houseplants, take precautions to protect yourself against toxic reactions.
- Wear disposable gloves when pruning or repotting.
- Always wash your hands after handling plants. If you have a plant that you know elicits a dermatitis reaction, wash your hands several times.
- Keep plants out of reach of young children and pets.
- Instruct children never to place leaves, flowers or seeds in their mouths.
- Dispose of water you have used for fresh cut flowers or rooting cuttings. (Some plants infuse water with poison.)
- Post the poison control number in an easily visible spot: 1-800-222-1222 for children as well as adults; 1-800-213-6680 for the Pet Poison Helpline (a $35 fee applies).
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Part That’s Toxic||Toxicity/Symptom1|
|Desert rose||Adenium obesum||All parts of plant||Heart arrhythmia, nausea; sap used as arrow poison in Africa|
|Agave||Agave||Leaves (contain calcium oxalate crystals)||Pain and swelling; leaf spine punctures produce pain and swelling that lingers for hours to days|
|Asparagus fern||Asparagus densiflorus||All parts of plant, especially berries, sap||Sap produces dermatitis; ingestion causes nausea, vomiting, cramping; berry ingestion very harmful to children|
|Angel’s trumpet||Brugmansia||All parts of plant||Rapid heartbeat, seizures, fever, coma, death|
|Dumb cane||Dieffenbachia||Leaves (contain calcium oxalate crystals)||Immediate swelling of mouth and throat; speech impediment can occur and linger for days|
|Devil’s ivy2||Epipremnum (also Scindapsus)||Leaves (contain calcium oxalate crystals)||Swelling of mucous membranes – mouth, tongue, throat|
|Pencil cactus||Euphorbia tirucalli||Sap||Bleeding sores on skin; in eyes, temporary blindness to permanent eye injury|
|English ivy||Hedera helix||Leaves||Vomiting, breathing issues, convulsions, paralysis, coma; dermatitis rare, but when it occurs can be severe (weeping blisters)|
|Oleander||Nerium oleander||All parts
|Arrhythmia, death; ingesting one leaf can cause death; roasting marshmallows on woody stems from plants causes sickness|
|Philodendron||Philodendron||Leaves (contain calcium oxalate crystals)||Mouth, etc., pain and swelling; also, skin irritation if handling plants for extended periods. Known to affect cats, sometimes to the point of death. Not recommended for homes with felines.|
|Jerusalem cherry||Solanum pseudocapsicum||Leaves, immature
& mature fruit
|Vomiting, fever; can be fatal to children|
|Peace lily||Spathiphyllum||Leaves (contain calcium oxalate crystals)||Swelling of lips, tongue, throat; dermatitis from root sap|
|Calla lily||Zantedeschia aethiopica||Leaves||Intense burning of lips and mouth; dermatitis; reported to be fatal to children|
1 It’s safe to assume similar symptoms with dogs and cats. Documented toxicities to pets are listed. With reptiles, if you’re looking for plants to include in an enclosure, avoid plants that cause dermatitis when working with larger animals that could lie on plants and crush them, releasing toxins to skin.
2 Similar symptoms produced by ingesting Chinese evergreen , butterfly plant , Anthurium and Caladium.
|Common Name||Scientific Name|
|Bromeliad||Aechmea, Guzmania, etc.|
|Ponytail palm||Beaucarnea recurvata|
|Orchids||Cattleya, Dendrobium, Oncidium, etc.|
|Spider plant||Chlorophytum comosum|
|Ti plant||Cordyline fruticosa|
|Tropical hibiscus||Hibiscus rosa-sinensis|
|Prayer plant||Maranta leuconeura|
|Boston fern||Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’|
|African violet||Saintpaulia ionantha|
|Palms||Exception: Burmese fishtail palm (Caryota mitis)|