Gardening

Casual Gardener: Pretty plants that pack poison

Some of our most beautiful plants are also the most poisonous...

Every part of the foxglove is poisonous

Some of our most beautiful plants are also the most poisonous...

OUR gardens are havens. Safe spaces we escape to, away from life's challenges. But herein lurk dangers because in our gardens and across the Irish countryside grow a range of toxic plants.

Some are poisonous but can also have positive medical applications. The foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), for instance, is one of Ireland's most common and best-known wildflowers yet every part of the plant is poisonous, not just those distinctive purple bell flowers that look like they would perfectly adorn the fingertips of a fairy or pooka.

Touching the leaves can cause skin irritations while ingesting any part of the plant can trigger diarrhoea and nausea, if you're lucky. In extreme cases can result in heart and kidney failure.

However, chemicals extracted from the foxglove are used in the manufacture of the drug Digitalis, which is used in medicine to strengthen contractions of the heart muscle.

The southern European foxglove Digitalis lanata, often called woolly or Grecian foxglove, is similarly used in the prescription drug digoxin.

Hellebores' beauty belie harmful toxicity

The range of toxic garden plants includes many familiar names, such as hellebores, common valerian, opium poppy, Laburnum and the appropriately named, deadly nightshade.

Ricin, the Russian spies' poisonous weapon of choice, is actually derived from Ricinus communis, the ornamental castor oil plant, which is often utilised in municipal summer bedding schemes.

The RHS estimates there are more than 130 poisonous plant varieties growing in our gardens and while fatalities and serious poisonings are rare, it makes sense to be aware of the dangers, especially if children and pets regularly use your garden.

The flower experts at abcFlora, the international flower delivery service, recently compiled a list of the 'deadliest flowers you're likely to find in your garden', alongside optional advice on safely removing them.

Topping the list is monkshood, also known as Aconite or wolfsbane, a reasonably common plant, found in many gardens.

With striking violet flowers, it's easy to forget this beauty is incredibly poisonous. It is said to have been responsible for killing Nathan Greenway, a 33-year-old gardener who died of organ failure after apparently handling the deadly plant on an estate in Hampshire in 2014.

It's therefore recommended to take extra care when removing monkshood, as it's dangerous to touch, especially the roots. Dig out the whole plant with a fork, wearing thick gardeners' gloves and thoroughly washing your hands after handling.

Poison hemlock is often mistaken for harmless cow parsley, but is a dangerous, widespread plant that can be fatal if even small amounts are ingested, triggering lung paralysis and even burning the skin if touched.

It famously claimed the life of Greek philosopher Socrates, who was sentenced to die by drinking a hemlock potion, for which there is no known antidote.

Normally found alongside riverbanks and ditches, you can avoid mistaking cow parsley for poison hemlock, by looking at the leaves and stalk. Poison hemlock leaves are more feathered in appearance with a waxier texture, while the stalk will have distinctive purple splotches.

With its small white bell-shaped flowers and sweet fragrant scent, Lily of the Valley initially seems an attractive flower to add to your garden and is often deployed in wedding bouquets - but be wary.

Also avoid of angel's trumpet - aka devil's breath - another plant that may appear innocent, yet can cause powerful hallucinations, paralysis and even death thanks to the toxic alkaloids it contains.

Helleborus one of the first spring flowers in the garden.

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Gardening