Monday, August 30, 2021

Dangerous Houseplants

Rear view of a woman holding back sheer curtains and looking out a window. There are potted plants on the windowsill.
There are a lot of plants commonly sold as houseplants that can be dangerous for people and pets; the list is surprisingly long. With these types of plants, there are more inherent dangers for pets (cats and dogs) but small children who chew on everything can be at risk as well, so keep an extra-close eye on those kiddos around them. In this list, I am concentrating on plants that may actually pose a threat to adult humans who live around them. It pays to educate yourself because in many cases the plant seller either downplays the risk or does not acknowledge it at all.

 Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) –

Sago Palm in a white and green pot on a wooden stool.

First of all, these are not palm trees - they are Cycads, an ancient type of plant that dates back to prehistoric times. These are incredibly tough, slow-growing plants that are clearly on this planet for the long-haul. Perhaps part of their successful longevity can be attributed to their toxicity. Sago Palms contain cycasin, a neurotoxin that causes a litany of unpleasant symptoms and then liver damage, liver failure and death. All parts are poisonous, but the danger is concentrated in the seeds. The good news is that the plant parts have to be ingested for the poison to take effect and most animals avoid this plant. It is the unwitting or unwise human who may purposely ingest this that are at serious risk. Perhaps it’s best to choose another plant for your house – they take too long to grow anyway.

 Euphorbia spp

Euphorbia tirucalli (aka Pencil Cactus) in a green pot on a wooden table.
All of the succulents in this family are toxic, with some being no-so-much and others being highly toxic. In all likelihood, you will not be informed by sellers as to which ones are worse when you are out shopping so you may as well consider all of them highly toxic. To be on the safe side, as the saying goes. The danger here, and it’s quite serious, is that these plants have a milky sap that is super-toxic. These plants also poisonous if ingested, but ingestion is not likely to happen in the normal course of events.  What does happen is that people take cuttings or do trimming-up and repotting and come in contact with the sap. It is extremely irritating to the skin and mucus membranes (keep your hands out of your mouth!), but the effects can be tragic if it is gets in your eyes. This article has more to say on this. These plants have become very popular, with the Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) being one of the most popular.  With the real danger literally in these plants, it may just be best to plant them outside. When planted outside, succulents in general may even help keep your house safe from fires by serving as a firebreak.

 Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) – 

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) in a white and brown pot on a white surface.
These pretty plants have become known among plant collectors for their air purifying qualities. And while that may be true, they also contain calcium oxalate crystals in their sap that are like tiny little needles. As with the Eurphorbia, this liquid can come into contact with skin (and eyes, and mouth) with general plant care. This contact may not be dangerous (again, unless it gets in your eye), but it can be extremely unpleasant. Should a person ingest the flowers or seeds, however, it can cause diarrhea and vomiting and other increasingly disagreeable symptoms; some patients even end up hospitalized.  According to this article, it actually makes the blood toxic.  Because the crystals make eating this plant painful and swallowing difficult, severe poisonings are rare and usually of an accidental nature.

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) –

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) in a white speckled pot.
Yes, that Aloe Vera that seems to be in everything from body lotions to makeup to health drinks. The thing is, while the gelatinous inside of the leaves is an excellent topical ointment that soothes and helps heal any number of skin conditions, the outside of the leaves are not so good. Strangely enough, that part of the plant can cause serious skin irritation. And, like everything else on this list, it should not be ingested. Although it is commonly used as a laxative, latex produced from the aloe should definitely not be taken orally.  Scientists have discovered that this plant causes cancer in animals and, by extension, most likely people. Which means, of course, ingesting it for health benefits may have the exact opposite effect that’s desired. Just stick to rubbing the gel on your skin and you’ll be fine. 

Danger Zone!
These are the plants that you could easily come into contact with that could easy hurt you. Please bear in mind that there are many plants I left off this list that can seriously sicken or kill your pets, so please do your homework before you bring something home. The ASPCA (American Society for the  Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) has a site with a comprehensive list of plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses. Check it out here before you adopt anymore plants.

On another note, if you are interested in scary-potent plants check out this article on the world’s deadliest flowers.

Submitted by Pam

Friday, August 27, 2021

Solutions For Environmental Stressors

On the left is a a dead tree, dried-out earth and stormy skies, on the right is a healthy tree with  grass under a sunny sky.
As we all adjust to our changing climate, we are forced accept that “unprecedented” weather events are now the new normal. This leaves growers of all types scrambling to figure out what’s best for their plants in this new landscape. Luckily, there are some smart people out there creating effective and innovative solutions to the most common environmental stressors that plants face. These products approach issues like heat, drought, cold and salinity in a variety of ways, but they are almost universally meant to be used proactively. So, while it may be too late to save some plants for damage that has already occurred, it’s never to late to plan for your next planting. 

Heat & Drought 

I thought about separating this into “Heat” and “Drought”, but products that are good for one are good for the other. These are two-for-ones, if you will.

One of our newest products this year is Mikro H2O. This innovative powdered product introduces two species of Rhizobacteria (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens and Bacillus subtilis) into the soil. They will then secrete natural polymers around the root zone and build biofilm. This biofilm forms a protective shield that holds water and protects the roots from evaporation and other stressors while improving nutrient uptake and essential functions. All this and it’s remarkably cost efficient. 

Another product that works in the root zone is NutriRoot®. This liquid combines a gentle 2-2-3 fertilizer with a blend of seaweed extract, nutrients, humic acid, humectants and surfactants. This combination provides nutrition and encourages root development; but, through its humectants, it enables the soil to literally pluck water from the humidity in the air and deliver it to the root zone.  This allows for less watering while still maintaining a steady and secure water supply. Hydretain® (which comes in 3 versions) uses the same water management technology as NutriRoot and performs in the same way. This main difference is that Hydretain does not contain the fertilizer. Hydretain’s claim to fame is that it can reduce waterings up to 50%.

We also carry a number of products with water-soluble polymers that hold water and then slowly release it to the plants as needed. In addition to being water-conserving devices, these polymers can condition the soil and improve penetration of water into the soil. Soil Moist™ Water Aide™ is an organic OMRI-listed version with many application possibilities. Another option we have is pH-neutral WaterWorks Crystals®. It is as versatile and effective as the Soil Moist option and can reduce waterings up to 75%. The last option I want to mention here is Plant Keeper. This polymer-based product was developed for use when you need a watering to last extra-long – it will keep the plant good for up to two weeks. This is perfect for when you have travel plans, or it would be great for use with a Christmas tree.   

Salinity 

A home by the sea is enviable in many ways, but it can be challenging to grow in soil with a high salt content. In truth, you don’t even have to be right by the sea – hurricanes and other storms that brew over the ocean can dump great quantities of salt water many miles inland. While this is not a condition that can be resolved quickly, it is also not hopeless. You just need to commit to the process and be conscientious in treating your soil.

Yucca schidigera is the smart go-to for natural desalination. Yucca extracts reduce salt buildup by reducing dry pocket formation within the soil and increasing permeability of the soil. You can access this valuable commodity in a liquid form  by using Therm X-70® or SaferGro® Natural Wet®. Both of these are very affordable and have multiple benefits beyond desalination. If you prefer a dry product, RAW Yucca Flow is an excellent option. It’s fully water soluble and a little goes a very long way.

     Water

Too much water is as devastating as too little and, in many ways, it’s harder to come back from. Floodwaters don’t just drown plants outright; they can carry contaminants and pathogens looking for a place to call home. Before you can rebuild your garden, you’ll need to let things dry out and then re-build your soil (more on recovering from too much water in my blog here). When it comes to building soil, we have a great deal to choose from. The following are a few I have chosen to give you an idea of what to consider:

TerraGrow – This OMRI-listed powder is chock-full of seven beneficial microbes as well as important nutrients. TerraGrow can bring nearly any soil back into winning condition. The large size (10 lbs and up) of this product may not work for smaller home growers, but perhaps you can use it as an example of what kind of product to get. We have other similar options that will work for you (look in Soil Amendments, Micronutrients & Biostimulants). 

BioAct™ SD – Powered by beneficial microorganisms and humic acid, this organic soluble powder chews through organic matter while supplementing the microbial life. If you have some gnarly fields (or a garden) full of stubble and crop residue after high water, this could be the starting point you need. You will, of course, need to let it all dry out first. 

Unleash™ - This liquid inoculant is made with a proprietary blend of both aerobic and anaerobic rhizobacteria to offer multiple plant benefits. These bacteria would work well in a flood-ravaged setting.  It was developed for cannabis and hemp cultivation, but it can be used broadly in agriculture. This is not an inexpensive product, but it’s cost per application isn’t bad and the sheer expanse of its uses and benefits make it worth the cost.  

VRD™: Volcanic Rock Dust™ - We are really getting back to basics with this item. VRD (or any soil amendments sourced from volcanic rock) are rich in trace and essential minerals that are crucial for healthy soil. This particular amendment has Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Sodium, and hydrophobic Fulvic Acid (which boosts nutrient acquisition in the soil). Soils treated with VRD receive the minerals in a slow release for long-term, continuous benefits. Volcanoes started the whole soil thing, so rebuilding using volcanic amendments just makes sense. 

A person wearing white gardening gloves planting plants.
There is a lot to worry about weather-wise these days, but your garden does not need to be one of those worries. We’ve got you covered in one way or another. 

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Dangerous Landscape Plants

A young girl facing away and looking out to a backyard. There is grass, a picket fence and a bicycle.

My last blog was about the poisonous plants that grow wild all around us. But as I was researching that I became increasingly surprised by the number of plants people willingly and commonly bring into their yards that can actually kill them or their pets. You can probably find at least one of these in gardens in your  neighborhood. Here are some examples that may surprise you as well. 

Oleander (Nerium Oleander) – 

Pink, red and white oleanders along the fenceline of a 2-story white house.
This plant can be found all over here in Tucson. It grows well in our harsh climate and provides quick-growing privacy in many areas. It is also extremely poisonous - a fact that has always been commonly known and commonly ignored. That is until the giraffe died.  Back in 2011, a male giraffe at the Reid Park Zoo here died after being fed oleander clippings. At the time, animals were often fed clippings from the plants around the zoo. Apparently a young apprentice did not know that oleanders were poisonous and included some in their feed. After the death, the oleanders that formed a large wall around the zoo were belatedly torn down and there was a whole lot in the news about the dangers of oleanders to humans as well as animals. Unfortunately, it appears that whatever messaging that was sent out then may have been forgotten by now, as there are still oleanders everywhere. 

Large purple leaves surround spikey red flowers and red seeds of the Castor Bean plant.
Castor Bean (Ricinus communis) –

This attractive plant with showy flowers is a native of Africa and was introduced to North America as an ornamental way back in the early 1800s. Sure, it’s pretty; but it’s also deadly. With the castor bean plant, it’s the seeds that hold the danger. They contain ricin, a toxin that interferes with cell function. The beans need to be ingested to be a threat, but it does not take many. According to this article, three seeds can kill a child and seven can kill an adult. Ricin has been in the news as far back as 1978, when Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov was killed by a man who attacked him with an umbrella that had been rigged to inject him with ricin. Over the years, ricin has been sent to several US politicians, including Donald Trump in 2020 (no one was hurt in any of these instances). Oh, and Walter White used ricin to kill an associate in Breaking BadThe relative availability of such a serious poison has led to many cases of ricin poisonings and attempted poisonings. Picking a plant for your yard that has such a lurid backstory is probably not a wise, or socially conscious, thing to do. 

Rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp) – 

Rhododendrons with purple and white flowers in front of tall trees.
My mother loved these plants and always had them in her Northern Virginia home in multiple colors, but I do not recall every being cautioned about them. According to Colorado State University, all parts of this plant are toxic and most poisonings that happen involve animals in winter months. At that time of year when other food sources are scarce, animals are attracted to the rhododendron's evergreen leaves as something to feed on. With people, poisoning has most commonly  been caused  by “Mad Honey”. This potentially fatal treat is created by bees that source their nectar from dense growths of rhododendrons. The Mad Honey term reflects the disorientation that is one symptom of rhododendron poisoning. There are also some people who actually ingest this on purpose in the belief that it has medicinal properties – they soon learn otherwise. 

A swallowtail butterfly feeding from orange and yellow lantana blooms.
Lantana (Lantana camara) – 

A native of Central and South America, lantana is now all over the place here in Southern Arizona. It tolerates drought well, so it’s been a xeriscape favorite and butterflies like it, so it’s popular in butterfly gardens. But it’s become invasive. And, yes, it’s also poisonous. All of this plant is toxic, but the greenish-black seeds seem to be the most attractive to children, livestock and pets and therein lies the problem. They may find them appealing enough to nibble on them. The “good” news is that it takes more than a nibble to experience the worst of the poison. This article says that approximately 1% of their body weight needs to be ingested before symptoms kick in. Between its toxicity and its invasive habit, this is a plant that should be shunned. If you have some in your yard that you’d like to remove, be cautious doing so as contact rashes are common. Also, never burn them – the smoke is toxic. Side Note: This plant never bothered my child; she found its little groups of flowers to be the perfect Barbie bouquet (of course, this was well before I knew they were invasive and toxic).

a grey and white cat standing behind purple, pink and white hydrangeas.s
Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp) –

This is another beauty that is surprisingly toxic. Their abundance of beautiful blooms and long growing season make them a garden favorite. But it contains toxins that break down and produce cyanide, so it’s a beauty with a dangerous little secret. This plant is not generally a problem for humans as the amount needed to induce a poisoning is substantial. There are some misguided humans, however, who smoke hydrangeas (apparently the effects are similar to THC). Not advisable. A lot of the poison in hydrangeas are in their gorgeous flowers and often pets like these flowers as much as their owners do. If your pets are chewers, find a way to keep them away, with their small bodies it won’t take a lot to poison them. According to this article, dried hydrangeas (the kind found in wreaths and other floral arrangements) are just as poisonous as the living ones. So, if you have these lying around and your indoor cat nibbles on things, you may want to reconsider your d├ęcor. 

A cartoon witch holding a finger to her mouth and moving her eyes back and forth as it to say hmmmmm.
There are many other plants out there that have poisonous tendencies. I encourage you to look beyond a plant's beauty or how easy it is to grow when deciding what to put in your yard (especially if you have children or pets). A little research can go a long way to avoid nasty toxic surprises. While you’re at it, make sure you are not planting anything that is invasive. And if the plant in question is toxic and invasive, it should be a hard “No”, no matter what. Also remember that just because a plant comes from a local nursery or big box store does not mean it should go in the ground in your neighborhood.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam                                                                


 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Scorpionfly.

Male Scorpionfly
Male Scorpionfly
Insects are masters of illusion and the Scorpionfly (Order: Mecoptera) is an excellent example of this. This bug may look like a devilish mashup of a scorpion and a wasp that could seriously hurt you, but it’s so not that.  It’s none of those things and, in fact, is completely harmless. Scorpionflies cannot sting and do not bite. And that large stinger-looking thing? It’s actually the oversized genitalia of the male.  Now you’re looking at this insect completely differently, aren’t you?

Female Scorpionfly
Female Scorpionfly

Scorpionflies are not actually flies, but they are nearly as common with more than 500 species in five families worldwide. Of those, 68 species are in North America. One or another of this large family can be found in all kinds of habitats – there are even Snow Scorpionflies. Despite being nearly everywhere, scorpionflies are not familiar to most people. This may be due to their small size (½” to 1” in length), or to their lowkey lifestyle. Scorpionflies are generally scavengers and feed on dead or dying insects (although they take a sip of nectar on occasion); but, there some species that prey on easy pickings, like wounded or slow-moving insects. Scorpionflies are also said to steal bugs from spider webs, but this behavior is probably as brazen as these little guys get. For the most part, they hang around (literally, they hang) on leaves and branches until they have an opportunity to feed.  

An artist's vision of the Permian Period with various plants and animals.
The Permian Period
Scorpionflies claimed their place on our planet a very long time ago and have carried on ever since. They developed during the Permian Period 250-300 million years ago. This was a time of great climate change and mass extinctions due to intense volcanic activity. These insects persisted, however, and changed very little between ancient and modern times. They are believed to be the ancestors of flies, butterflies and dragonflies. This time period also saw the rise of the cockroach, an insect that most people probably wish had not survived the volcanoes. 

So, what about that big “tail”? Like other male creatures with flashy parts, it’s used in courtship display. They wave it around while emitting pheromones to get the attention of females. But he has to have more than a big tail to win the female over; he needs to offer her a nuptial gift. These gifts are either dead insects or a saliva ball that, if she accepts him, she’ll feed on while copulating. Just in case she changes her mind, he has claspers on his huge appendage that keep ahold of her. And if she goes through her food gift too fast, he will hack up another saliva ball for her to eat. These methods to subdue and placate her are necessary as the females have been known to eat their suitors. 

A male scorpionfly feeding off a spider's web.
A Spiderweb Buffet
Another probable reason for such an ostentatious tail-end is Batesian mimicry. This is when a defenseless animal takes on the characteristics of more threatening creatures. In the case of the scorpionfly, their black, yellow and orange coloring is similar to a wasp. When you add the stinger-like appendage, you have a harmless animal that looks like a dangerous scorpion-wasp hybrid. This is an excellent strategy to keep predators (and some humans) away. But is also causes witless humans to kill something peaceful for looking like something else. 

Real footage of a volcano in Iceland.
Scorpionflies active and doing their part to clean up organic matter from May through September, so keep an eye out for these little guys. Be gentle with them, though; they’re survivors but also very delicate.

Submitted by Pam






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