Stephen RyanPretty poisonous

I don’t know how often I’m asked if a given plant is poisonous by customers in my nursery and I feel like pointing out that virtually no plant is poisonous unless you eat it! In fact if these some people were to know just how many plants are potentially toxic it would be enough to stop them gardening altogether.

The fact that rhubarb leaves and green potatoes can be lethal hasn’t bought the government around to banning them so why in fact should any plant that ingested by someone silly enough to try eating it be banned so as the rest of us could loose a potentially good garden plant? Isn’t this just natural selection after all!



Every so often some one in the media starts a campaign (at a time, I can only assume is a quiet news week) to have a plant expunged from the trade due to its potentially toxic nature.

I can well remember quite some heat being created about that stalwart shrub the oleander. Something tougher and more floriferous would be hard to find and yet illness or death from this plant is fairly rare and does that mean that it should be eradicated from its Mediterranean homeland as well so that no Greek is at risk?


Brugmansia – poisonous and hallucinogenic


Even more hysteria is regularly whipped up in the tabloids about Brugmansia (Angels Trumpet) as it is not only poisonous but hallucinogenic to boot, silly young men (it’s usually men) who find out about it are occasionally tempted to give it a go. So the idea is that I should go without these stunning shrubs to protect these deluded fools. I have to say more of them manage to kill themselves in cars but as far as I know there isn’t any push to get rid of these.

If we were in fact to consider banning plants for this reason then we would need to decide just how toxic something would have to be to deserve this measure, and what about the huge number of plants that haven’t even been tested for toxicity do we ban those just in case? Are a whole lot of bitter indigestible daphne leaves or a large quantity of daffodil bulbs prepared in place of onions enough to have these plants listed? If someone uses the poisonous seeds of a bay tree in cooking instead of the leaves does it cop the chop?


Do most people have any idea how poisonous a daffodil bulb is?


We know that monkshood and deadly nightshade were used to poison politicians in ‘Ye Olden Times’ does that mean we shouldn’t grow them to protect today’s senators?

I have been told that if I seriously did want to knock off someone I would be better to use heavy metals anyway!

Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade)

Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade)


So what should our response as gardeners be to poisonous plants?

Train our children and ourselves not to put anything in our mouths that we are not sure is safe and encourage those with no horticultural experience to only eat things with red berries if they come in punnets.

Pretty, scented and very poisonous Daphne

Pretty, scented and very poisonous Daphne


Funnily enough there are actually few poisonous berries in the scheme of things and usually those that are taste dreadful anyway so unless they are swallowed whole are self-explanatory.

So although one might worry about the children thinking they are lollies it is unlikely that they will even give themselves a sore tummy and will I hope have leant a lesson that a parent should have perhaps already give.

I have for the best part of sixty years been surrounded by and enjoyed a whole gamut of plants many of which are poisonous to some degree and I’m still here!


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Stephen Ryan

About Stephen Ryan

Stephen Ryan grew up and still lives at Mt. Macedon in Victoria where he has run his nursery Dicksonia Rare Plants since 1980. He was for 3 years host of Gardening Australia on ABC TV and is a regular on Melbourne’s 3CR. Sunday garden program. He has written 4 books and innumerable articles for magazines both in Australia and abroad and is also a sought-after speaker at garden clubs.

7 thoughts on “Pretty poisonous

  1. I seriously seriously seriously can’t recommend the brugmansia at any time, ever, and for those inclined to sometimes want to trip the light fantastic it is without a doubt the most deranging, dangerous, unpleasant thing this little wood duck (in a former life…) has ever ingested.

    I remember reading a story in the paper where some rozzers spied a man on a nature strip with nothing on except his shirt, which was put on back to front. They asked what he was doing. He replied “I am a toaster”. Sadly, his mate was found drowned nearby in a puddle of water 1/2 an inch deep.

    That said, I adore the plant and wouldn’t be without it.

  2. My thanks to you, Stephen, for highlighting the plight of so-called toxic plants and their possible elimination from sale from plant nurseries including the some of the species you have named.
    If the “Weed Exterminators” could have their day, garden enthusiasts and even Horticulturalists would be shocked at the news of the capacity of some plants to kill and maim- even if they were perceived edible or easy to purchase or if publicity aided promotion of sale of such species!
    In NSW, the Food and Beveridge Media Associations do not promote plants such as Brugmansias as food items-or pet foods! Why the hysteria?
    I feel there are no valid reasons to have certain species banned from production and sale without specific and ongoing research.
    In my travels, many famous Apothecary Gardens, often found in Church or Cathedral grounds, contain rare species of rare medicinal plants that could be used for good and evil in the right or wrong hands!
    Long live the Brugmansia species thriving in my garden!
    Clare Bell

    • The fact that many poisonous plants can also be used for medical purposes just highlights the murky path one walks when you try to ban things.

  3. I could not agree more!!!! Have you noticed the programs around these days that get small children to pot up a tomato plant? Wonderful to get kids into gardening but I doubt they are telling them (or the teachers or parents) just how poisonous tomato leaves and flowers are – because there is no expectation that we will eat these parts of the plant. Having said that a recent contestant on Masterchef garnished his dish with tomato flowers so perhaps a little more education and respect for plants wouldn’t go astray.

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