While giving my undergraduate class a tour of a botanic garden, a university professor said that “we should only eat the parts of a plant that the plant wants us to eat”. He was referring to the fruit, which many plants encourage animals to eat in order to spread their seeds in the environment (though not all fruits are edible). I don’t think he meant us to take his advice literally, but it is sensible to eat plants with caution. Alongside famous poisons including belladonna and hemlock, plants produce a variety of other molecules that aim to deter animals from eating them. Some of these molecules – such as ricin, which is produced by the castor oil plant – are so poisonous that tiny quantities can kill you. Others, like caffeine or the anti-malaria drug quinine, have less dramatic effects on the human body that we may find desirable or useful.
I recently visited The Alnwick Garden in north-east England, which has a special garden dedicated to educating visitors about the potential dangers of plants. In fact, some of the plants on display in the Poison Garden are so dangerous that visitors can only enter as part of a guided tour. I really enjoyed the tour and if you are ever in the area I recommend you pay the garden a visit.
The tour included some well-known poisonous plants, but the main message I took home from the tour was that many common garden plants are also potentially dangerous if they touch your skin or you accidently eat them. Below are a few examples of common plants that aren’t as benign as they might first seem:
Rhubarb (Rheum x hybridium)
While the pink fleshy stalks of the rhubarb plant are safe to eat and are commonly used in desserts, the leaves are highly toxic (1). This is thought to be due to the presence of high levels of oxalic acid, which can interfere with chemical reactions in the body by combining with calcium and other metals.
Common ivy (Hedera helix)
This rapidly growing vine is a haven for wildlife and attracts at least 70 species of nectar-feeding insects in its native range of Europe and Western Asia (2). Contact with ivy can cause an allergic skin reaction in some people, due to a natural pesticide in the leaves called falcarinol (3). Regardless of whether you are allergic to ivy or not, you should avoid eating this plant because its leaves contain saponins, which can cause vomiting, convulsions and even death.
Common nettle (Urtica dioica)
Children quickly learn that contact with common nettles results in a painful stinging sensation and skin inflammation. This is due to a cocktail of molecules including histamine, serotonin and oxalic acid, which is released from hairs on the surface of the leaves. For more information check out this cool infographic by Compound Interest.
Common laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)
All parts of this small tree are poisonous, due to the presence of a molecule called cytisine, which has a similar structure to nicotine and has similar effects on the body. Laburnam is a member of the pea family and cases of laburnam poisoning are often caused by individuals mistaking laburnum seeds for peas and eating them (4). Mild cases may cause nausea and vomiting, but laburnum poisoning can also lead to insomnia, convulsions and coma.
These are just a few examples of common garden plants that can be harmful to humans and other animals. Fortunately, you can protect yourself against these and other poisonous plants by taking simple precautions, such as wearing gloves while gardening and carefully identifying edible plants when foraging.
Author’s note: Sorry for the long silence on this blog. My life has been quite chaotic in the last few months due to several events (expected/not expected, good/bad) and so the blog has had to take a back seat. Things are calming down a bit now so I’m hoping to get back into posting regularly, probably about twice a month. As ever, I’m always keen to receive guest posts so if you are interested in writing for Plant Scientist, please do get in touch.
- The Poison Garden blog: Rheum x hybridium http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/rheum_x_hybridum.htm
- Wikipedia: Hedora helix https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedera_helix
- Compound interest advent calendar http://www.compoundchem.com/2014advent2/
- The Poison Garden blog: Laburnam anagyroides http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/laburnum_anagyroides.htm