Some plants have a scary reputation and rightly so. Plants in the Aconitum genus, also known as the Monkshoods, are some of the most beautiful but deadly you might find in your garden. Death can be caused by ingesting but also by handling this plant. The most recently documented death in the UK occurred in 2014, when a gardener sadly died after handling the plant without gloves.
Other plants known for their toxic effects are those such as Foxglove, or Digitalis, which contains a toxin that can disrupt the function of the heart. The horrors of Giant Hogweed have been well-documented (and possibly somewhat exaggerated) in the media and whilst you are unlikely to purposely cultivate hogweed in your garden, you may grow members of the Euphorbia family. Their sap can cause a similar, albeit less dramatic reaction to that of the hogweed, causing very nasty blistering if you don’t treat it with serious caution.
Plants’ natural defences have evolved over millennia to deter predators and many of these defence mechanisms are efficient to the point of lethality. Some plants take it a step further; Puya chilensis traps animals such as sheep in its giant spines. When the animal dies from starvation, its remains are used as fertiliser by the plant, meaning not only is the plant defending itself from predatory grazing animals but is actually turning the tables on them!
Humans are most at risk from poisonous plants and you probably already grow some of in your garden and don’t give a second thought to them; box (Buxus sempervirens), yew, delphiniums, snowdrops, ivy, bluebells, holly, daffodils, rhododendrons, lily of the valley, rhubarb (its leaves), day lilies (Hemerocallis), oleander, mistletoe…the list is long and contains a fair few surprises for the average homeowner. The number of plants poisonous to pets is greater and the potentially toxic quantities are smaller, making the garden even more of a minefield for animals.
However, incidents of accidental poisoning from plants are thankfully extremely rare in the UK and the majority of people interact with their gardens year after year and sustain nothing more than the odd scratch from a rose thorn or bramble. The benefits from being outdoors and interacting with nature are far, far greater than the risk posed to you by plants so don’t be afraid to go outside and garden. And please don’t feel you need to remove potentially dangerous plants, there are too many of them and you will never make a totally risk-free garden. Just remember to wear gloves when you’re handling plants and soil and always wash your hands once you’ve stopped work. The natural world can be a scary place, but we shouldn’t be afraid of it, we just need to accord it the respect it deserves.