Spring’s vibrant blossoms lift spirits after a dreary winter. Our local landscapes include subtropical species adopted from Central and Latin America, but some plants are poisonous and best appreciated from a distance. Here are a few everyday plants that your child can look at, but should not touch.
Oleander’s flowers bloom white, pink, red, or yellow from summer to fall. The plant typically grows 6 - 12 feet tall and wide, commonly as a hedge. But beware, it is one of the most poisonous plants because its dangerous chemicals can cause digitalis-like cardiac rhythm abnormities if eaten. It can also cause confusion, dizziness, mouth burning, and salivation. Toddlers have died from eating the beautiful leaves and flowers. If touched, the leaves irritate skin and cause swelling and itching.
Azalea And Rhododendron
Azaleas and Rhododendron are pink and red bushes beloved in gardens. If eaten, there are usually mild symptoms of mouth irritation, nausea, and vomiting. Honey made from these blossoms is historically known as “mad honey.” It has concentrated cyanogenic glycosides levels which can cause decreased heart rate, breathing difficulties, seizures, and coma.
Native to South and Central America, Lantana provides months of multicolor ground cover/bushes. Its sap is poisonous and can irritate the skin. Eating unripe berries or leaves can cause vomiting, cardiac rhythm abnormalities, weakness, and death.
Periwinkle, or vinca, has small shiny leaves and small violet star-shaped flowers in spring and intermittently during summer and autumn. Eating periwinkle plants can cause varying symptoms from mild abdominal cramping to serious cardiac complications. Two chemicals in periwinkle are vincristine and vinblastine that are actually used in cancer chemotherapy.
Lily Of The Valley
Lily of the Valley has sweetly scented flowers in late spring. However, all plant parts, including the berries are highly toxic. If eaten, the results are headache, nausea, vomiting, slow irregular heart rhythm disturbances, and mental confusion.
Beautiful white, yellow, and orange daffodils, or narcissus, are often signs of spring. All parts of the daffodil are toxic. When swallowed, it can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Eating the bulb can cause severe irritation of the mouth and stomach upset. These symptoms are usually not life-threatening and resolve within a few hours.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak & Poison Sumac
“Leaves of three, let them be.” Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac have an oil (urushiol) that can last on an object’s surface up to 5 years. When this oil contacts the skin of most people, it causes a burning, swelling, itching rash that may blister and weep. Leaking blisters are not contagious. A rash can appear 1-2 days after exposure as a linear brush line, and then in other places where hands have accidentally spread the oil.
To get rid of these plants, never burn them, as the smoke can cause severe respiratory and eye reactions. Herbicides are available or use natural methods: apply boiling water or a mixture of detergent water and salt sprayed on the plant; smother it with plastic or wood; or dig them out and enclose in a bag. Regardless of method, beforehand prepare by applying a barrier cream on hands (ceramide-3 or lipid rich moisturizer with or without denotatum – an Ivy block that absorbs Rhus oil) underneath thick long gloves and wear long sleeves, long pants, and boots. Afterwards, wash exposed clothing and tools separately in hot water and detergent.
If you suspect contact with an uroshiol-oil plant, immediately wash skin with rubbing alcohol or a degreasing soap (dishwashing liquid or Zanfel-type plant wash). You will not itch immediately. Rinse with plenty of water, scrub under nails, and apply cool compresses and calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Oral antihistamines may help itching. If your child experiences swelling or difficult breathing, call 911. If a rash persists for more than 14 days, looks infected, or involves genitals or face, see your pediatrician.
A great reference to identify plants is www.poison.org/articles/plant. The safety take-home point is to watch children (and pets) when outside, so they do not touch or eat berries, seeds, or plants.
Even inside the home, be cautious with houseplants and any crafts with dried seeds or flowers. Do not make medicinal teas or barbeque sticks from unfamiliar plants. Try to learn the names and characteristics of the plants inside and outside your home and keep the nursery name tag near the plant to jog your memory.
If your child gets a skin reaction to a plant or ingests plant parts from a poisonous plant, please call 1-800-222-1222 (the local poison control center in all continental United States). Be prepared to describe your child’s age, symptoms, and how recently the plant was touched or eaten. If possible, take a photo of the plant.
I hope everyone has a safe spring, enjoying pretty but poisonous plants from afar.
Dr. Fanya Seagull is a Sentara Medical Group board-certified pediatrician. Her office is at Sentara Pediatric Physicians between General Booth Blvd and Nimmo Parkway at 2301 General Booth Blvd, Suite B. She is a mom of two children under age 10 and in her free time, she enjoys cooking, traveling, swimming, and tending her colorful garden.