Five popular landscape plants that are potentially poisonous to people and pets. (Part 1)

The intent of this article is not to scare, but to raise awareness of “what could happen” – exercise caution at all times and research plant characteristics before buying!


  1. Oleander – Nerium oleander

Its use as a poison is well known. In fact, oleander is reportedly a favorite suicide agent in Sri Lanka, where oleander poisonings exceed 150 per 100,000 each year. That’s a high number. Approximately 10% of these ingestions are fatal.

Despite the danger, oleander seeds and leaves are used to make medicine. Oleander is used for heart conditions, asthma, epilepsy, cancer, painful menstrual periods, leprosy, malaria, ringworm, indigestion, and venereal disease; and to cause abortions.

Oleander is one of the most poisonous commonly grown garden plants and is toxic when eaten by dogs.  These plants contain a cardiac glycoside poison which produces symptoms similar to those seen with foxglove poisoning. Oleander poisoning is often caused by the ingestion of dead or dried leaves which apparently are more palatable to animals than the green leaves.


2.  Castor Bean – Ricinus communis

Perhaps as a child you might have been given castor oil to ease intestinal problems.  This oil is made from Castor Beans, so you might be surprised to learn that castor beans contain one of the most poisonous substances in the world, ricin. Just one castor bean has enough ricin to kill an adult within a few minutes.  Throughout history ricin has been used in assassination attempts!   Despite this grim quality, castor bean plants are frequently grown for decorative purposes, even in parks and public places.  The ASPCA warns that castor bean plants are highly poisonous to dogs, cats and horses. The beans of the plant are particularly dangerous, although the poisonous factor, the ricin protein, exists throughout all of its parts.

3   Daylily – Hemerocallis sp.

 Daylily poisoning in cats is caused by the consumption of plants of lily variety, particularly Easter Lily, Stargazer Lily and Tiger Lily.)   While not a true Lily (Lilium sp.) the pollen, stem, leaves and petals of many varieties of daylilies are poisonous to felines in even the smallest amounts. Direct consumption of the plant or simply grooming the fur after making contact with the plant can pose a threat for daylily poisoning in cats, causing kidney failure.   Dogs do not appear to be affected, and of course Daylily roots and flowers are edible for humans.

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4   Datura

Datura is a genus of nine species of poisonous vespertine flowering plants belonging to the family Solanaceae. They are commonly known as daturas, but also known as devil’s trumpets, not to be confused with angel’s trumpets, its closely related genus Brugmansia. (Datura flowers face upwards, Brugmansias hang down.)  They are also sometimes called moonflowers, jimsonweed, devil’s weed, hell’s bells, thorn-apple and many more.

.Since this is a night-blooming plant, (flowers usually last into the day) its flowers must be pollinated by nocturnal visitors. Various species of sphinx and hawk moths are common pollinators. During the early morning hours, species of bees and even hummingbirds aid like to visit.

Sacred Datura is still used by some Native American cultures in religious ceremonies. Medicine men, holy men, spiritualists and even self-proclaimed witches have used it since ancient times. Thankfully, accidental ingestion by animals or humans seldom occurs, because all parts of the plant are extremely bitter, but the warning is warranted because accidental ingestion could be fatal.


5   Duranta – Duranta erecta and Duranta repens

Duranta is in the same plant family, Verbenaceae, as lantana.  While it is popular     nursery plant, it is highly poisonous to pets and children, with many documented deaths.  Duranta erecta‘s toxicity has been known since the late nineteenth century when ingestion of its fruit killed a two-year-old boy in Queensland, Australia.   In 2006 it was designated a Texas Superstar – I would question “why”, except it has pretty light blue or lavender flowers, and the fruit is a small yellow or orange berry, sometimes with both appearing at the same time.   In many places it is now considered invasive, with birds freely redistributing the ingested berries.

How it was back then ……

This is just a little 6 point reminder about  ancient practices which might still be relevant today!  Things change so rapidly – when I was growing up in England we didn’t grow tomatoes outside, only in the greenhouse.  Varieties and cultivars have changed so much that nowadays anything is possible!!!  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!!  I hope readers will understand that there really are no relevant images to go with this post!!!  This time you’ll have to “google” 🙂

Fruit and ornamental trees not producing?  Beat them with switches!  It was thought that this makes them think they are going to die and in the interests of preservation of the species they put on fruit and blooms!  (I have never tried this – I prefer to talk to my trees and plants!)

Bees not producing honey?  All your bees dying?  Perhaps you forgot to share with them the news of a family member’s death or other life events.  Adopt the ancient practice of sharing your news with them!  Back in the day my grandfather would take his mail each day to the orchard where we kept the hives and read all the letters to the bees.  Of course, that was when people wrote letters, and we didn’t have advertising fliers!

Vegetables not thriving?  Try “Moon Planting’ – moon-based planting calendars and old-timey gardening lore suggest sowing seeds for crops that yield an aboveground harvest when the moon is increasing (going from new moon to full moon). Root crops, on the other hand, are best planted during the waning moon (going from full moon to new moon).  You might also try Companion Planting (read “Carrots love Tomatoes & Roses love Garlic” by Louise Riotte).   I recall, from experience, Onions definitely DO NOT like Peas and Beans!!!

Planting beds being plagued by invasive woody vines like Carolina Snailseed and lighter ones like Morning Glory (Bindweed)?  Many plants will be much happier in raised beds and containers, provided they are deep enough!  Even fruit trees and ornamentals!  If the vines do penetrate from below, they are relatively easy to pull.  This is also good if you have nasty soil!

None of your favorite plants thrive?  Make sure you are planting those that are suited to your “Zone” and soil type.  If you have alkaline soil don’t be tempted by azaleas and rhododendrons!   If you live in zone 8b don’t plant anything that is recommended for zones 4 – 6!  Get a soil test evaluated by your local Extension Office.

If “they” say “it won’t grow here” try it anyway, once.  Maybe twice, but then try something else!  Although, I remember many years ago someone looking at my vegetable garden in full production stage and saying “of course, nothing will grow in this blackland clay!!!  There are many beautiful flowers, scrumptious veggies and fruits in every region, Enjoy “local’, what is in season, and above all avoid invasive non-native  plants!!!



The downside of sharing plants!

Who doesn’t love going to plant swaps, and sharing plants with (and from) friends?  The great thing is that you can increase your plantings for few or no dollars, and and soon become a recipient of the local “Garden of the Month”!!!

I don’t know how to write this without giving offence to some, and I have been guilty of the actions I am about to “expose”.  When you have a plant that does particularly well in your garden, has beautiful flowers, and everyone wants a cutting or a start, of course it feels good to share.   Over the years, there has been a push in the horticultural and natural world to eliminate “invasives” and promote natives.  I have become much more aware of the dangers of invasives, what they are, and the damage they can do.  These “enthusiastic” plants (as my best friend in England once described them during a live session of the program Gardeners’ Question Time) are by default the ones that do best in your own garden.

Invasives can choke out and eradicate native species.  This applies to insects too – especially when the native insects can’t find the native plants which they were intended to pollinate; they go into decline and the non-natives take over.  Texas has something like 4000 native bees, but the European Honey Bee makes money for entrepreneurs by producing honey!

Anyway, here are the top five plants I wish I had known about beforehand:

  1.  Ruellia simplex & other sp.  (Mexican Petunia)  A neighbor gave me a pot of these over 30 years ago and now the whole neighborhood is infested.  Very pretty, but indestructible !
  2. .Chasmantium latifolium, (Inland Sea Oats)  Very attractive, low growing grass with pretty seedheads, useful for drying and in flower arrangements.  A Master Gardener gave me a start of these.  Grrr.
  3. Canna indica (Canna)  No idea where mine came from, but in the past I have dug up the roots and tossed them on top of the brush pile where they continued to live and now from the street it looks like I have 20 ft tall cannas!Garden.Canna.4.JPG
  4. Lagerostroemeria indica (Crape Myrtle)  Much loved small tree of this area – sneaky tree that sends out roots underground in an attempt to take over the world.  (No pic at present!)  New shoots are easy to remove but who has the time to keep up with this?
  5. Lonicera japonica (Japanese Honeysuckle).  Heavenly perfume, beautiful flowers, but since it escaped from Japan it has naturalized and the native honeysuckles are now overpowered and facing extinction!

There ought to be a law!!  At plant sales/swaps each plant offered should have a full disclosure on labels.  One of the reasons a plant becomes “invasive” is because someone else has too many and is sharing by  thinning the forest!!!   Look at plant names for a clue “sinensis”, “japonica”, “indica” for example – these ain’t Texas natives!!!

If you decide to plant invasives, be prepared to spend a lot of time controlling them, and always explain what you are giving away at plant swaps!!!  If in doubt, google Texas Invasives!  Best practice – don’t share without disclaimer on label; even better practice, don’t plant!!!


Asclepias tuberosa – Butterfly Weed

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) is native to North America (some say specifically Missouri) and has a long history of medicinal uses by Indians  and pioneers.  Butterfly Weed is also known as Canada Root, Pleurisy  Root, Silkweed, Swallowwort, Tuber Root, Wind  Root.

These brilliant splashes of pumpkin-orange color in fields and along roadsides during the heat of midsummer are aptly known as Butterfly Weed, because monarchs, swallowtails and other butterflies are especially attracted to the plant when it is in flower.    Butterfly Weed favors open, dry  fields and can be abundant, particularly in the southern United States.  Like all other milkweeds, butterfly  weed produces pods, which open in autumn to reveal rows of silky  seeds that  drift with the wind, but unlike most milkweeds, does not have a milky sap.


Powdered and mixed into a paste, the root was spread on sores.  The Indians  of several regions brewed a tea from the leaves to  induce vomiting in certain rituals.  Both settlers and Indians made a tea from the root to induce perspiration and expectoration in severe respiratory ailments,including pleurisy, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  Stronger doses were given as an emetic and purgative.  In the 19th century the U.S. Pharmacopeia listed the plant.



Asclepius was the god of healing in Ancient Greece.  His sign was a snake curled around a staff – the caduceus, still a symbol of medicine today.  Medicine in those days was practiced by secular physicians, called sons of Asclepius.   The sick sought these doctors’ help in temples built in Asclepius’ honor.  But that’s another story!!!!

Springtime means ….. BEES!

In springtime a young flower turns its thoughts to bees!  Here are a few bee-facts you might not know.

Stop your neighbors from using broad spectrum insecticide.  These kill good insects as well as bad.  Sevin, seems to be one that is especially bad for bees.  If it is sprayed on a blossom, it kills all pollinators that land on it.  This is now available through local hardware stores.

30% of bees, hornets and wasps live in the ground. Leave messy borders around your yard to support them.

Grow a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the season, from early spring to late fall, and leave their blooms on as long as possible.

Plant native flowers.  Find a native plant society group in your area.  They can help you determine which plants are natural to your area and perform best for local insects.

wildflower meadow

Most people do not realize that there were no honey bees in America before European settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful animals promptly managed to escape from domestication. As they had done for millennia in Europe and Asia, honey bees formed swarms and set up nests in hollow trees. Native pollinators, especially bees other than honey bees, have been pollinating the continent’s flowering plants since long before the arrival of honey bees. Even in today’s vastly altered landscapes, they continue to do the yeomen’s share of pollination, especially when it comes to native plants.

The honey bee, remarkable as it is, does not know how to pollinate tomato or eggplant flowers. It does very poorly compared to native bees when pollinating many native plants, such as pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries.  Tomatoes don’t produce nectar, but Bumblebees will pollinate them in a greenhouse as long as water and sugar water are close by!!!


Native bees come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors. They are also varied in their life styles, the places they frequent, the nests they build, the flowers they visit, and their season of activity. They remain ignored or unknown by most of us. Yet, they provide an invaluable ecosystem service, pollination, to 80 percent of flowering plants. What would our world be like without the beauty of flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers? How many of us know that native bees pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in this country?

Bees are descended from wasps. Most wasps are carnivores; they either prey upon or parasitize other insects or spiders, and use this rich protein source to feed their young. About 125 million years ago, when the first flowering plants evolved, some wasps made a switch from hunting prey to gathering pollen for their brood. Perhaps they were hunting for insects that visited flowers and ate some of the pollen or drank the nectar along with their prey. It didn’t take much to find the advantages of consuming pollen over hunting. Pollen is rich in proteins and doesn’t fight back, so it is easy to imagine why the bees became vegetarians. Gathering pollen and nectar requires certain adaptations different from those of hunters, so they started to change, to evolve to meet these requirements and consequently became bees.



More than just a pretty flower: getting to know the name behind the species!

Ever wonder where those names that end in “ii” come from?  What do they mean?  Some of the answers are easy to find on the internet, others pretty much impossible. However, inquiring minds want to know, and if you have the curiosity and the time, there’s a lot of information “out there”!!!  Interestingly, much of this plant exploration took place in the so called “Age of Enlightenment” during the 18th Century.   So, here are six well known names to start with.

Drumondii: -Thomas Drummond ca. 1790-1835

                                                                                    Phlox drummondii

Many plants (including Phlox drummondii) were named for Thomas Drummond, Scottish Naturalist.  In 1830 he made a trip to America to collect specimens from the western and southern United States. In March, 1833, he arrived at Velasco, Texas to begin his collecting work in that area. He spent twenty-one months working the area between Galveston Island and the Edwards Plateau, especially along the Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe rivers. His collections were the first made in Texas that were extensively distributed among the museums and scientific institutions of the world. He collected 750 species of plants and 150 specimens of birds. Drummond had hoped to make a complete botanical survey of Texas, but he died in Havana, Cuba, in 1835, while making a collecting tour of that island.

Wrightii: -Charles Wright 1811-1885

                                                                                   Datura wrightii

Charles Wright, American-born world-wide botanical collector collected extensively in Texas (1837-1852), Cuba, and his native Connecticut.  Plants named for him include Datura wrightii, the genus Carlow wrightii (wrightworts) and Geissorhiza wrightii (Baker). George Engelmann named a small cactus after him, Wright’s fishhook (Sclerocactus uncinatus var. wrightii.) He is also commemorated in the name of the grey flycatcher (Empidonax wrightii ) found near El Paso. Tropidophis wrightii (Wright’s dwarf boa) was also named after him


Anthonyanus: -Dr Harold Anthony (Can’t find image of Dr. Anthony!)


                                                       Selenicereus Anthonyanus,
Rick Rack Cactus, Devils Backbone Cactus, Fishbone Cactus – is named for Dr. Harold E. Anthony, who first flowered this species in June 1950. The former generic name Cryptocereus (literally, “hidden cereus” recalls the fact that the species remained long unknown in a region that had been thoroughly investigated.  Mr. Thomas McDougall found this species in 1946. He thought he had found a close relative of Epiphyllum anguliger.  When it flowered in the greenhouses of Dr. Harold E. Anthony in Jersey in 1950 it was obvious that this was a great novelty. The species is rarely collected and most plants in cultivation descend from this first collection.

Greggii: -Josiah Gregg 1806-1850

                                                                                                   Salvia Greggii

Josiah Gregg was a merchant, explorer, naturalist, and author of Commerce of the Prairies about the American Southwest and Northern Mexico regions. He collected many previously undescribed plants on his merchant trips and during the Mexican-American War after which he went to California. He reportedly died of a fall from his mount due to starvation near Clear Lake, California, on 25 February 1850 after a cross-country expedition which fixed the location of Humboldt Bay.

Fortunei: -Robert Fortune 1812-1880

Osmanthus fortunei

Born in Scotland, he took a 2-year trip to China about 1845 and wrote a travelogue which captures the imagination of Victorian Society; he was approached by the Dutch East India Company to return to China on a “secret” mission.  He came back with more plants, and more importantly …………. TEA!!

Four of the best-known plants that were named for him are:
Euonymous fortunei – Winter Creeper
Trachycarpus fortunei – Windmill Palm
Osmanthus fortunei – Tea Olive
Hosta fortunei

Thunbergii: -Carl Peter Thunberg 1743-1828

                                                                               Spirea thunbergii
Carl Peter Thunberg, also known as Karl Peter von Thunberg, Carl Pehr Thunberg, or Carl Pet Thunberg, was a Swedish naturalist and an apostle of Carl Linnaeus.  He has been called “the father of South African botany”, “Pioneer of Occidental Medicine in Japan” and the”Japanese Linnaeus.”

At 18 Thunberg entered Uppsala University i Sweden where he was taught by the famous Carl Linnaeus.  He was skilled in botany and medicine, and joined the Dutch East India Co. as a surgeon in order to travel to South Africa.  He is credited with naming some 254 species of plants and animals, including:
Allium thunbergii, Amarantus thunbergii, Berberis thunbergii Geranium thunbergii, Pinus thunbergii, and Spirea thunbergii!!




Three more Euphorbias!

My last post was about the Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, probably one of the most popular and well known Euphorbia in the world, especially at Christmas!  Such an interesting plant family, Euphorbia is a very large and diverse genus of flowering and non-flowering  plants and commonly called Spurge.

Three more Euphorbias that I am currently growing are Pencil Cactus, Crown of Thorns, and African Milk Tree – none of which resemble the Poinsettia in appearance, but all of which have the irritating milky sap (irritating not in the sense of annoying, of course, but as a potential irritant to the skin!!)

Euphorbia tirucalli – Pencil Cactus:

Greenhouse.Euphorbia Tirucalli  Like many succulents, tirucalli is easy to propagate by cuttings.  Sometimes I leave the cuttings out in the air to callous over the cuts, sometimes I stick them in with the sap dripping.  It doesn’t seem to make much difference!  Pencil Cactus can grow into large bushes and trees in it’s native habitat of semi-arid tropical climates, but is easy to control in less hospitable climates by taking cuttings.  Chop off it’s head, stick in potting soil, and share with your friends!!  I have never seen flowers on this plant, only teeny-tiny leaves.

Euphorbia milii – Crown of Thorns, Corona de Cristo


Again, easy (but not fast!) to grow from cuttings.  These come in several colors, and have vicious thorns.  It is easy to see where it’s common name “Crown of Thorns” came from.  Care (and gloves) is required when handling this plant.

Euphorbia trigona – African Milk Tree


This plant will grow to a decent sized spiny shrub or tree, with it’s origin in Central Africa.  It is easily grown from stem cuttings – most sources recommend letting the cut edge callousing over prior to planting to prevent rot.  Interesting to see the color change in the second picture.  The bottom of the plant is scarred from excess sun I think, so now I’ll be keeping it in afternoon shade once it goes back outside for spring and summer.

The best thing about these plants is that they are “pass alongs”; E. Tirucalli came from a friend at church who knew I was looking for some starts for a friend; E.millii came from the Rector at my church; E.trigona came from a dear friend.