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Paging Dr. Frischer - Plants
WRITTEN BY :   Dr. Alan Frischer

I love to spend time in my garden; I take great pleasure planting things and watching them grow. (This year we harvested a massive crop of pomegranates!) Sometimes my arms or hands come into contact with a plant, and soon after my skin is itching, red, or tender. My patients experience similar complaints, but the irritations are not generally severe enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. Still, it makes me wonder: which of the common plants in our gardens and communities should we avoid for the good of our health? Lethal plants may be hanging around the neighborhood park, or even on our tabletop centerpiece!
Most plants contain some level of toxins for their defense. Through the millennia, with trial and error, humans as well as animals have usually managed to work out which plants are safe, which are lethal, and which lie somewhere in between. An African staple, cassava, must be thoroughly boiled and soaked to separate its poisonous compound, cyanide. Over the years, farmers have bred the lima bean to contain lower levels of cyanide. Cherry pits, peach pits, and apple seeds contain cyanide, and in large doses they can be fatal. Many legumes, such as soybeans and kidney beans, contain potentially toxic lectins, but are safe if properly cooked.
Angel’s trumpet is a lovely vine that has practically taken over my backyard. It is related to the petunia, tomato, and potato, and acts as a powerful hallucinogen – which can be deadly. It contains, among other things, atropine, hyocyamine and scopolamine, each of which are used for various purposes as prescription medications.
Narcissus, also known as the daffodil, is highly poisonous. Socrates called this plant the “chaplet (a kind of prayer) of the infernal Gods,” due to its effects as a narcotic. When an extract of the bulb is applied to open wounds, it can produce significant numbness. In some cultures, such extracts have been used for baldness, and even as an aphrodisiac!
The rhododendron is Washington’s state flower. It is a tree-like evergreen shrub with large, brilliant blooms, and is common throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. It is related to the azalea, and all parts of the plant are dangerous. They contain andromedatoxin, which can cause pain, lethargy, depression, nausea and vomiting, progressive paralysis, coma, and death.
Another plant to avoid consuming is wisteria, growing on attractive vines that cascade in blue, pink, or white. They grow mainly in the South and Southwest. Any part of this plant, if consumed, is likely to cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.
Chrysanthemums, also known as mums, can be seen in purple, orange, burgundy, yellow or white just about everywhere, including in foil wrapped pots in the fall. Mums are often planted to keep rabbits away, because the flowers contain the natural insecticide pyrethrin as well as sesquiterpene lactones, toxic to rabbits…as well as to household pets and humans. Just touching them can cause swelling and itching.
The anthurium is a wonderful and strange looking green, red, and white plant, making it extremely decorative. However, consuming any part of it can cause hoarseness and difficulty swallowing, or even a painful burning sensation in the mouth that swells and blisters.
The ficus is also known as the weeping fig, Benjamin tree, or rubber plant. I love my ficus trees, and they grow so well in sunny Southern California – whether in pots, tubs or the ground, indoors or outdoors! All ficus have a toxic milky sap in their leaves and stems. Their harmful effects are typically minor skin irritation, swelling and itching, and coughing and wheezing.
In contrast, let’s finish with the oleander, considered the most deadly among common plants. It is, unfortunately, incredibly popular as a decorative shrub! A single leaf can kill an adult. There have been numerous cases of fatal poisonings from exposure to twigs, blooms and berries, including fatalities among horses and other livestock. Among other toxins, the oleander contains cardiac glycosides, which affect the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, and the digestive system.
So, please enjoy your garden; I certainly do. Plant what pleases you, and enjoy the fruits of your labors. However, be educated and aware of your plants and their potential for possible toxicity, especially if you have young children or pets. Happy gardening!
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.

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Published: December 27, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 37



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