Ask The Hort Agent: Poisonous landscape

  • Posted: Monday, November 18, 2013 2:19 p.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, November 18, 2013 2:22 p.m.

Question: How do I know whether my landscape plants are poisonous to children?

Answer: The poisonous plant subject can be a sensitive issue.  I can certainly understand parents wanting to protect their children from harm.  However, the line between poisonous and nonpoisonous plants can be very thin.  Luckily, we don't live in Australia where nearly every insect, spider, reptile, mammal or plant will kill you.  In the good ole US of A, we are protected from nearly everything (including ourselves).

In this land of extensive protection, there is a tendency to blur the line when discussing poisons.  The word “poison” carries a drop dead implication.  However, the plant that causes the most people to go to the doctor for treatment is poison ivy, and the treatment is only for skin irritation.  There are a few plants that can cause you to “walk toward the light” if eaten.  In the interest of “protecting” you from terrorism, I will not mention them by name.
Symptoms of plant poisoning range from irritation of the skin to death, with upset stomach  or vomiting being the most recognizable.  It is often difficult to tell if a person has eaten a poisonous plant because there are no empty containers or unusual lesions or odors around the mouth.

There are many “lists” of poisonous plants available.  The vast majority of them do not have any scale or way of rating the poisonousness (toxicity is the correct word) of the plants.  For example, the Carolinas Poison Center has a poison plant list that includes azalea, pepper, boxwood, chrysanthemum, holly and oak.  Where would we be if these plants were excluded from our landscapes?

In order to educate your children about eating plants, you may wish to plant an edible landscape.  Focus on what “to do,” instead of what “not to do.” When planting an edible landscape, keep in mind some plants may have both poisonous and nutritious parts on the same plant.  Examples include tomatoes, potatoes, cherries, apples and peaches.  Another option is to keep more of the landscape out of their reach by using larger plants or putting the children behind fences (like prisons do).

Most poisonous plants do not taste good. The unpleasant taste prevents digestion of toxic amounts.  That is how we survived for thousands of years in the wild without a poison plant list.  This may also have contributed to our love of beef.

Unless your children have a tendency to graze like cows, our common landscape plants do not really pose a life or death threat.  The three most common causes of pediatric poisoning are cosmetics, cleaning supplies and medicines.  If you think they have eaten a toxic substance, then call the Carolinas Poison Center at 1-800-848-6946.

For more info about edible flowers, visit
If you do not have internet access, please call the Extension Office at 893-7530 or email me at

The primary way trees kill children is through ATV (all terrain vehicle) accidents.  A high speed dose of tree trunk given to a child or adult is usually life threatening.   

Gary Pierce, Horticulture Agent
Harnett County Cooperative Extension

Notice about comments: is pleased to offer readers the ability to comment on stories. We expect our readers to engage in lively, yet civil discourse. cannot promise that readers will not occasionally find offensive or inaccurate comments posted in the comments area. Responsibility for the statements posted lies with the person submitting the comment, not If you find a comment that is objectionable, please click "report abuse" and we will review it for possible removal. Please be reminded, however, that in accordance with our Terms of Use and federal law, we are under no obligation to remove any third party comments posted on our website. Full terms and conditions can be read here.

Do not post the following:

  • Potentially libelous statements or damaging innuendo.
  • Obscene, explicit, or racist language.
  • Personal attacks, insults or threats.
  • The use of another person's real name to disguise your identity.
  • Comments unrelated to the story.