Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities - Amy Stewart (2009)

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT

Some animals are clever enough to avoid plants that are bad for them, but what are the chances that yours is one of them? A pet bored or confined for long periods of time may be tempted to nibble on one of these common plants. The poison control center for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gets close to ten thousand calls annually regarding plant poisonings. In addition to sago palm, any of the following plants may cause a pet owner’s favorite symptoms, vomiting and diarrhea, and some are even fatal. Here are some other ill effects:

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ALOE

Aloe vera

   

Although useful for treating burns and scrapes, the saponins found in the plant can cause convulsions; paralysis; and severe irritation of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract.

DAFFODIL AND TULIP

Narcissus spp. and Tulipa spp.

   

Bulbs contain a variety of toxins that can cause severe drooling, depression, tremors, and heart problems. The scent of bulb fertilizers, which are made with bonemeal, can prove to be too much for some dogs, who might dig up a newly planted bed and chew on a few bulbs before realizing their terrible mistake.

DIEFFENBACHIA

Dieffenbachia spp.

   

Common houseplant, also called dumbcane. Contains calcium oxalate crystals that can burn the inside of the mouth, cause drooling and swelling of the tongue, and possibly lead to kidney damage.

KALANCHOE

Kalonchoe blossfeldiana

   

A small succulent with bright red, yellow, or pink flowers often sold as a blooming indoor plant. It contains a class of cardiac steroids known as bufadienolides that can cause heart damage.

LILIES

Lilium spp.

   

All parts of lilies are toxic to cats, causing kidney failure and death within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Think twice before bringing a potted Easter lily into the house, and keep floral arrangements containing lilies well out of reach of your whiskered friends.

MARIJUANA

Cannabis sativa

   

Marijuana can depress a pet’s nervous system and lead to seizures and comas. If you have to take your stoned pet to the vet for treatment, fess up so the animal gets the right care. Don’t worry: vets are used to the “it belonged to my roommate” story.

NANDINA

Nandina domestica

   

Also called heavenly bamboo, this ornamental shrub produces cyanide, causing seizures, coma, respiratory failure, and death.

All parts of lilies are toxic to cats, causing kidney failure and death within twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

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PAINFUL

Stinging Tree

DENDROCNIDE MOROIDES

The diminutive stinging tree has been called the most feared tree in Australia. It reaches about seven feet in height and produces tempting clusters of red fruit that resemble raspberries. Every inch is covered with fine silicon hairs that resemble peach fuzz and contain a virulent neurotoxin. Simply brushing up against the plant results in unbearable pain that may last up to a year. In some cases, the shock of the pain can be so great that it brings on a heart attack.

FAMILY:
Urticaceae

HABITAT:
Rain forests, particularly in disturbed areas, in canyons, or on slopes

NATIVE TO:
Australia

COMMON NAMES:
Gympie gympie, moonlighter, stinger, mulberry-leaved stinger

The hairs themselves are so tiny that they easily penetrate the skin and are almost impossible to pull out. The silicon does not break down in the bloodstream, and the toxin itself is surprisingly strong and stable. In fact, it remains active even in old, dry specimens of the plant. The pain can be reactivated for months afterward by extreme hot or cold, or simply by touching the skin. Even walking through the forest where stinging trees are present can pose a threat. The tree sheds its fine hairs constantly, and passersby run the risk of inhaling them or getting them in the eyes.

A soldier remembers being stung by the tree during his training in 1941. He fell right into the plant, coming into full body contact with it. He was tied to his hospital bed for three weeks in pure agony. Another officer was stung so badly that he committed suicide to get away from the pain. Humans are not the only ones affected—newspaper accounts from the nineteenth century include reports of horses dying from the sting.

Simply brushing up against a stinging tree plant results in unbearable pain that may last up to a year. In some cases, the shock of the pain can be so great that it brings on a heart attack.

Anyone walking through the Australian rain forest would be well advised to keep an eye out for this plant. It can easily penetrate most kinds of protective clothing. A common treatment is the application of a hair removal wax strip, which will pull out the plant’s fine hairs along with your own. Experts recommend a shot of whisky before attempting this treatment.

Meet the Relatives     The stinging tree is part of the nettle family; the genus includes Dendrocnide moroides, believed to be the most painful. D. excelsa, D. cordifolia, D. subclausa, and D. photinophyllaare also referred to as stinging trees.