Saturday, March 23

Hidden garden dangers

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Poisonous plants are found at home, parks and nature so learn more about some species and what to do in an emergency.

Poisonous plants are found in almost every suburban garden and park in the country. Both popular exotic species and a number of indigenous plants are toxic to humans, animals or both.

“It is not practical to eradicate all poisonous plants, but it is important to get to know more about them,” says Cherylynn Wium, a medical scientist working at the Western Cape Poison Information Helpline.

While some plants can be lethal, others are less toxic causing skin irritations, gastrointestinal problems, disturbed vision or fast or irregular heartbeat or breathing difficulties. Fatalities do occur, but are rare and are related to how much toxic plant material was ingested.

According to Wium, about 3% of the calls received on the helpline are for plant exposures. Of these, 68% of cases are children, 9% are adolescents, 19% are adults and the remaining 4% are animals.

While younger children account for most accidental poisonings, adolescents and teenagers may intentionally ingest plant material for their hallucinogenic properties.

Parents should teach children from a very early age never to handle or eat plants without a parent present.

Teenagers should be cautioned not to experiment with toxic hallucinogenic plants as this can have serious consequences.

Poisonous garden plants


Nerium oleander, also known as the Ceylon rose, is a common evergreen shrub with pink, red or white flowers. All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans, animals and birds. A Nemba category 1b invasive alien.

All parts of Nerium oleander are poisonous to humans, animals and birds. Picture: Lukas Otto
All parts of Nerium oleander are poisonous to humans, animals and birds. Picture: Lukas Otto


Melia azedarach, also known as the syringa or seringa, Persian lilac or China berry, is a medium to large tree that produces an abundance of scented purple-lilac flowers in spring and early summer. Berries ripen to a yellowish-brown colour. In some cases, children have been reported to have eaten the berries without any signs of illness. In other cases, serve vomiting and even fatalities have been recorded. The plant should always be regarded as toxic. A Nemba category 3 invasive alien in urban areas.


Brugmansia candida and Brugmansia suaveolens are large, exotic shrubs that produce long, pendulous cream or pinkish-coloured flowers amid a backdrop of dark, velvety leaves. Although fatalities are rare, the plant is considered extremely toxic. Leaves, flowers and seeds are all poisonous.

Elephant’s ear

Alocasia macrorrhiza is a large perennial with huge leaves and is indigenous to tropical Asia. All parts of the plant are considered toxic. If chewed, the leaves and tubers will produce an intense burning on the lips, tongue and mouth.

Dumb cane

Dieffenbachia spp. – collectively called dumb cane – are grown for their pretty variegated leaves. Similar symptoms as noted in Alocasia macrorrhiza occur if the sap is ingested. The tongue swells and the person may not be able to speak. Fatalities have been reported in dogs, cats and birds.

Common thorn apple

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed or stinkblaar is a common weed found throughout the country, with thick stems and distinctive thorny seed capsules. The poisonous seeds are black and kidney-shaped and known as “malpitte”. They are sometimes ingested for their powerful hallucinogenic properties. Accidental poisoning may occur as the leaves can be mistaken for wild spinach. Human fatalities have been recorded. A Nemba category 1b invasive alien.

Teach a young child never to handle or eat plants unless you are on hand to supervise. Picture: Tyler Edwards
Teach a young child never to handle or eat plants unless you are on hand to supervise. Picture: Tyler Edwards

Other plants

Here are other common plants you should be aware of:

Eating even small quantities of the fruit of the Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) can cause cramps and nausea. Large quantities may cause convulsions.

Chewing parts of the arum lily or delicious monster can cause burning, swelling of the lips and pain in the mouth.

The seeds of all erythrina species are considered poisonous. Cattle deaths have been reported after ingesting the leaves of erythrina caffra.

Euphorbia species contain a toxic latex that is a severe skin irritant.

Wild mushrooms should never be eaten. It can be very difficult to tell the difference between species. The death cap mushroom is one of the deadliest mushrooms.

Berries of the invasive common privet (Ligustrum vulgare) are toxic to humans, cats, dogs and horses. In small quantities the berries may cause vomiting and cramps, but in large quantities they can be very dangerous.

For suspected plant poisoning:

Remove all pieces of plant material from a child’s mouth.

Rinse the mouth. Do not induce vomiting.

Call the Poison Information Helpline on 0861555777 (all hours and nationwide).

If you are advised to take the victim to your closest emergency medical facility, take a piece of the plant with you (if possible). Also, take a picture of the whole plant with your cellphone. This will speed identification and treatment.

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