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Guide to Poisonous Plants a Handy Home Aid

June 20, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. _ I was happy to see the label “poisonous” on the plant Brugmansia when I visited a garden center in the other day. I applaud them for letting the public know _ especially shoppers who have curious small children or pets.

Little is written about poisonous plants, so people are always hearing and questioning the safety of many plants. You’ll learn what plant parts irritate your mouth or skin and which ones cause more serious reactions in the “Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants” co-published by the New York Botanical Garden and Springer.

Brugmansia is a gorgeous tropical-looking plant that’s commonly called angel’s trumpet. Its huge tubular flowers, which can be yellow, white, peach or orange-red, are fragrant and eye-catching. Its flowers and seeds are poisonous. It’s classified as an annual, but its seeds usually germinate the next growing season.

The poisonous-plant book is a revised edition of one originally written in 1985. Two physicians who practice medical toxicology and emergency medicine and an ethnobotanist (studies relationships between people and plants) and authority on toxic plants authored the latest version.

Plant poisons are on the increase because homes and gardens include a greater diversity of plant material, according to the botanical garden. In the United States, exposures to plant toxins account for about 10 percent of the annual calls to the nation’s poison control centers.

The 340-page, soft-cover book is divided into user-friendly sections. It’s geared for professional medical people and hobbyist gardeners. The glossary of botanical terms describes plant parts. The sections on poisons and their clinical management and gastrointestinal treatments for ingested toxins are the most medical part of the publication. Another section deals with allergic and skin reactions to plants.

Individual plants are profiled with botanical and common names and full-color photos _ 398 to be exact. Hikers and campers heading into woods, meadows and fields filled with plants they don’t know may find it a useful guide.

You may be surprised at what you read about everyday garden plants. The entire plant on Baptisia, a popular perennial called false indigo, is poisonous. So is clematis. Flower heads on mums are labeled toxic. Caladiums and elephant’s ears are considered “injurious,” meaning they burn or blister the mouth.

Of course, you need to keep all of this in perspective. Children are more likely to think of berries on plants as a fruit they can pop in their mouth, so it’s important to teach them to ask you before they eat something they know nothing about. Pets are curious eaters, too, but many plant parts have to be consumed in great quantity to do any harm. Usually upset stomachs are the result.

Getting the book will teach you the toxic parts, the toxins, clinical findings and management. I’ve raised kids and gardened with every plant under the sun _ my boys adored elephant’s ears _ and never had any plant poison problems. My only encounter with the poison control center was when my oldest son, 4 at the time, decided to lick the paint can lid. I guess it looked like melted white ice cream to him.

You can purchase the poisonous plant book online at www.nybgshop.org or contact the Virginia Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

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(c) 2007, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).

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