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

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