It is the time of year when flowers bloom, leaves sprout, and fruits and seeds mature. Trees, flowers, and other plants can enhance the childcare environment, both inside and outside, and can provide wonderful learning opportunities for children. Many plants are colorful and children are attracted to the leaves, flowers and fruits. However, many plants or parts of plants can be toxic and can cause problems if eaten. Knowing the most common plants with which children are likely to encounter, how they can be poisonous, and how they might affect the human body can be helpful information in the childcare setting.
Many plants commonly grown indoors are poisonous to some degree. The philodendron is not extremely toxic, but can cause a burning sensation in the lips, mouth and throat. If too much is eaten, a more severe reaction might be a swelling of the airways. The cut leaves of the aloe plant are poisonous if ingested, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and heart palpitations. Also, dermatitis and episodes of burning skin following application of the raw, fresh gel inside aloe leaves have been reported. Dieffenbachia is another popular indoor plant that has some toxicity. The actual handling of the plant is safe; if eaten, however, the leaves may cause swelling and breathing difficulties.
Mistletoe usually appears indoors only during the Christmas holiday period, but it grows in trees year 'round. The berries from this parasitic plant are toxic and if eaten can be fatal in children as well as adults. Caution should always be exercised, especially when small children might be around.
Some indoor plants that are generally safe and pose no serious threats to children who touch or ingest them include African violet, coleus, corn plant, croton, lace fern, palms, yucca, wandering Jew, rubber plant, spider plant, and sensitive plant.
There are some very common flowering plants that can be poisonous. Wisteria, iris, bleeding hearts, lantana, elephant ear, crocus, holly berries, morning glory, hydrangea, daffodils, and many more are toxic. Most often the child who ingests the leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, or bulbs of these plants will experience minor to severe digestive disorders. However, the lantana plant can affect the kidneys, lungs and the nervous system if its berries are eaten. If elephant ear plant is ingested, an intense burning and swelling of the mouth and tongue can occur, blocking off airways and possibly causing suffocation. Furthermore, the blooms of some flowers are poisonous, including atamasco lily, azalea, trumpet flower, buttercup, autumn crocus, morning glory, and wolfbane.
Some outdoor flowering plants that are safe for children to be around are snapdragon, aster, dahlia, Easter lily, hibiscus, impatiens, roses, and tiger lily.
Fruits and seeds
All trees and/or fruits in the prune family such as cherry and plum, as well as peach, apricot and apple trees, have small levels of cyanide in the seeds or pits that is released when these seeds or pits are chewed or digested. The human body normally detoxifies small amounts of this poison, but, if eaten in large amounts, some problems can arise like rapid heartbeat, headache, and drowsiness. How does this affect childcare providers? When serving apples, it is fun to cut the apple crossways, creating a circle with a "star" of seeds in the center. This is a great activity, but be sure to help children remove the seeds and throw them away; do not let them eat the seeds.
Another plant that children often handle during craft projects at school is cotton. Processed cotton balls do not have any toxin, but the plant itself is full of poison glands (little black dots if you look closely) that produce gossypol. Gossypol is a toxin that naturally occurs to help prevent insect damage to the plants. Children can examine and feel natural cotton balls and can compare the actual cotton boll (the ball with the seeds and outer covering attached) with processed cotton balls or cloth. However, if you have a child who often chews objects or puts things in his mouth, do not leave potentially toxic seeds or cotton balls where the child can reach them.
Trees that can be poisonous include oaks and the black locust. The leaves and acorns from oak trees can be toxic if eaten in large amounts. Symptoms normally appear after several days or weeks and the kidneys are usually affected. The black locust's bark, sprouts and leaves have been shown to be toxic to children if they chew on the seeds and/or bark. Symptoms of this poisoning are nausea, weakness and depression. How can you teach children to respect plants without scaring them? Go on a nature walk and watch a squirrel or chipmunk as it finds nuts and berries. Explain that every animal, including people, have certain foods they can eat. A squirrel can eat acorns, but people should not because it can make them sick.
Other outdoor plants
There are numerous mushrooms and other similar fungi in nature; and while many are edible, many others are very toxic or even deadly. Because mushrooms often are colorful, they may appeal to children; so always check your outdoor play area for mushrooms, especially in warm weather after a rainfall. Never allow children to touch or eat any mushrooms or fungi, unless they were purchased at a food store!
Some plants in the nightshade family can be toxic. All parts of black nightshade plants, which are normally weeds in vegetable gardens, are poisonous (especially the berries). This type of poisoning can cause intense digestive disturbances and nervous system symptoms. Death may even occur. Potatoes and tomatoes also are in the nightshade family, and the sprouts and leaves of potatoes and the vines (leafy parts) of the tomato can be poisonous if eaten in a certain amount.
There are many common plants with which we come in contact that can be harmful if ingested. The best prevention against poisoning from a plant, is to know which ones are safe and avoid those that are unsafe. If you have any questions about poisoning, contact your local poison control center. If a child does ingest a plant that can be toxic, call the poison control agency or 911 immediately!
by Mike Clelland,
Agronomist, Mid-State Farmers Cooperative, Pelham, AL
Local or state poison control centers can provide information on poisonous plants. Check your telephone book for the number.
Poisonous Plants of North Carolina, www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/poison.htm
Cornell University's Poisonous Plants Page, www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants
Guide to Poisonous Plants, www.vth.colostate.edu/poisonous_plants/report/search.cfm
Poisonous Plants Chart, This site has a chart with names of plants. Go to publications, then poisonous plants.