April 13, 2016: Are there any toxicity concerns with Spring plants?

Plants make for a beautiful Spring.  Many are considered poisonous.  However, the good news is that the majority of the time very little of the plant is ingested so there are usually very mild symptoms, if at all. Often with a child it is a choking hazard as they take a bite, don’t chew it well, and choke. If the plant is an irritant, it can cause a dermatitis. Some common houseplants are Dieffenbachia, Philodendron, Rubber Tree, Pothos, Schefflera, and Mother-In-Law’s tongue which is the Snake skin plant. (Is there an irony there?) Toddlers are very curious about the world surrounding them. So when a plant is in reach they will often pull off a piece and put it in their mouth. Some of these plants have oxalate crystals in them which can irritate the mouth; other plants can cause a dermatitis. Fortunately, most ingestions just cause mom a scare. Sometimes the child may vomit.

What is a mom to do? Call the Poison Center at 1 – 800 – 222 – 1222.  It is a free, confidential, 24/7 service staffed by nurses and pharmacists who are Certified Specialists in Poison Information.  The poison specialist will ask the caller if the child is coughing or choking. Has the child vomited? Did the child swallow a piece of the plant or was mom able to get the piece out of the child’s mouth?  Mom will be directed to give the child a drink and a snack. Call the poison center back with any questions or concerns. The vast majority of the time the child will be able to stay home. It would be a very rare occurrence that would require a visit to the Emergency Room.

Outside holds many temptations as well. Pokeweed has a thick purple stalk with dark purple berries. These berries stain fingers purple. If enough berries are ingested, these can cause stomach upset. Holly bushes have bright red berries which are attractive to children. These berries would also cause some GI distress if several were eaten. Fortunately, these pretty berries are not very palatable, so only one or two get eaten. What should dad do? Call the Poison Center.

Many flowering plants are indeed poisonous. Symptoms can be dermal irritation to stomach upset if ingested to hallucinogenic effects if one were making a tea of certain plants and some plants can even potentially cause significant cardiac issues. This would require a large amount to be ingested which is an unlikely scenario. Brightly colored flowers catch a child’s eye. Oleander, Lily of the Valley, Rhododendron and Foxglove are Cardiac glycosides which could affect the heart.  Cardiac glycosides are used in the medication Digoxin. If a child picked one flower and ate it this inadvertent ingestion is unlikely to case any issues.

Angel’s Trumpet was sometimes brewed as a tea for “medicinal purposes” but unfortunately this tea caused hallucinogenic symptoms. In today’s society it is sometimes smoked, ingested or brewed as a tea as a drug of abuse for these hallucinogenic effects. This plant is also known as Jimson Weed.

Tobacco is derived from the plant Nicotiana tabacum. Cigarettes, cigars, snuff and “chew” are all forms of tobacco and now there is e – cigarette liquid nicotine. Tobacco, when ingested even in small amounts, can cause nausea and vomiting, tremors, sweating, and even seizures. E -cig liquid nicotine is unregulated and even a taste can be toxic in a child. Unfortunately, the manufacturers of these products often make the packaging enticing with cute names and cartoons on these products which of course appeal to children. What should a parent do if a child eats part of a cigarette or drinks from the dip cup or ingests e -cig liquid nicotine? Call the Poison Center at 1 – 800 -222-1222. It is free, confidential and staffed 24/7.

Pets can also be poisoned by plants. Dogs, especially puppies, tend to chew on things including plants. Some dogs may dig up plants and shrubs. Oxalate plants can cause nausea and vomiting and sometimes an unsteady gait. Some dogs may choke and gag and have throat irritation from the oxalate crystals in plants. Azaleas and Rhododendron can cause lethargy and unsteady gait in dogs. Don’t feed your dog raisins or grapes. These fruits can cause a dog to have acute renal failure. Xylitol which is an artificial sweetener in sugar free gum can cause severe hypoglycemia which is drop in the blood sugar and this can be life threatening to the dog. Cats also chew on plants. Plants of the Lily family, especially Easter Lilies can be toxic to cats. This plant can cause vomiting, anorexia and renal failure. Pyrethrins which are from the Chrysanthemum plant can cause seizures in a cat. Flea squeeze on products sometimes contain pyrethrins. Never use a flea product for a dog on your cat.

Are there any plants that you should avoid planting in the yard or having in the house? No, children explore and may taste in such minute quantities that at worst they may have an upset stomach. Don’t let your dog dig up or chew on plants. If you have a cat you may wish to avoid Easter Lilies or those of the Lily family. There is an ASPCA Animal Poison Control that is staffed by Veterinarian’s and toxicologists and it is available 24 hours a day. It does not have private funding and so there is a $65.00 dollar charge for the call which does require a credit card. The number to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control is 1 – 888 – 426 – 4435.

April showers bring May flowers so enjoy the menagerie of color that Spring has to offer.


This question prepared by:  Denese Britt, BSN, MS, CSPI (Certified Specialist in Poison Information)  Tennessee Poison Center


I am interested in any questions you would like answered in the Question of the Week.  Please email me with any suggestion at donna.seger@vanderbilt.edu


Donna Seger, MD

Medical Director

Tennessee Poison Center


Poison Help Hotline: 1-800-222-1222