Thursday, March 12, 2009

Plant Choices that are Safe for Children and Pets

Before deciding which plants to add to your garden, it’s important to consider whether they hold any safety concerns for your children and pets. There is a lot of online and printed info available, but I have found that much of it is complicated, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. This month’s blog is about the types of plants I recommend that you avoid, and why. Next month’s will have a list of fun and safe plant suggestions!

1. Avoid adding thorny plants around play areas. When children and pets are chasing a ball, playing tag, or other scampering, it’s easy for them to run or fall into shrubs. Thorny branches or leaves can cause an injury much worse than a scraped knee. Barberry, Roses, Raspberries, Pyracantha, and Flowering Quince are beautiful to look at, but should not be planted at the periphery of a lawn or other play area. Hawthorn and Holly are prickly trees that you would not want children to climb, and their tendency for sprouting dozens of seedlings underneath them creates an additional problem for the tender feet of children and pets.

2. Avoid plants with poisonous parts that are also likely to be ingested. Many of our most common landscape plants contain some part that is poisonous. So it’s important to know exactly which part, how likely it is to be ingested, and how poisonous. North Carolina State Univ. has a great website on this topic at

For instance, every part of a Rhododendron, Azalea, Daphne, or Foxglove (Digitalis) are poisonous if eaten. Since none of these plant parts are tasty, a child taking a bite of one of their leaves or flowers would likely spit it out in disgust… but…..if you have a dog that chews on your shrubs, or if you use a cut branch from one of these plants to play catch with them, your dog could ingest enough toxins to become very ill. Of these plants, Foxglove is by far the most dangerous because it self sows hundreds of tiny brown seeds around itself, which instantly become invisible on the soil surface. The highly poisonous seeds may be eaten accidentally while dogs, cats, or kids are digging in the soil around these plants, then licking their paws or putting fingers in their mouth. This is why I seldom suggest removing existing Rhododendrons from your garden, but would never include Foxglove in any planting plan.

Here are some other examples of shrubs I recommend that you avoid:
• Skimmia japonica shrubs are commonly available in local nurseries because they have very ornamental (and poisonous) berries, produced only by the female plants. However, even though the berries are not at all tasty and usually only a danger if eaten in a large quantity, they look just like bright red gumballs, so could be very enticing to young children.
• All parts of a Poinsettia, like every member of the Euphorbia family, are mildly poisonous if ingested. But the real issue is the milky white, sticky sap inside all Euphorbia stems, which oozes out when a stem is crushed or cut. Some people have absolutely no reaction to touching this substance, but many children and adults have an allergic dermatitis reaction that is very painful, and would become serious to anyone who also rubbed their eyes after touching the sap.

All this goes to show that it really pays to know the details about a plant’s toxicity and other dangers before deciding to add or remove it from your landscape! Because designing child-friendly gardens are one of my specialties, I will always recommend plants that are appropriate for your family as well as your landscape conditions. And feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about your plants.