Second thoughts on poisonous plants

Janice Wells
Published on March 10, 2014

A few years ago I had a book called “Lois Hole’s Perennial Favourites” which was one of my favourites, so, of course, it went on the missing list because I thought it was so good that I shared it with someone who thought it was so good that he/she forgot to give it back.

Glory be, a couple of weeks ago, in a mad burst of winter cabin fever, I took myself down to Afterwords, my go-to place for previously read magazines, and, along with some 40-odd magazines at 50 cents a pop, I found a copy of my missing book, in very good shape.

Lois Hole was a professional gardener and gardening writer from Alberta who, sadly, passed away in 2005.

Her contribution to her province and to the world of horticulture was such that she received many prestigious awards and was serving as Alberta’s lieutenant governor when she died. I very much like her down-to-earth style (and the fact that she was also known for her tendency to hug people).

Re-reading the book, I was quite interested to come across the following:

“Occasionally, someone asks me about the danger of poisonous plants. In all the time that I spent in my mother’s garden as a child, I was never tempted to eat a delphinium, nor have I, in all my years in the gardening business, ever run into any person who has actually been poisoned by a plant.

Many of the most common garden and house plants are poisonous, in part or in whole, but quite honestly the risk to children is very low. You would have to eat quite a lot of most poisonous plants to be harmed, and since they generally taste dreadful, this would not be very easy. That being said, children should always be discouraged from eating any plant that could harm them.”

I had already decided she was right when I received this email from Patsy Ploughman:

“Hi Janice … don’t stress over the Ivy! It won’t take over here … I think it’s because the season is just too short. I stuck a house plant in under a Copper Beech and it grew as a ground cover like a treat and even a few shoots made it up the surface of the trunk a couple of feet or so, but nothing like you might see in the U.K. or, obviously, south of the border. B.C. might have problems, though.

“Friends took cuttings and had equal experiences; also none of our cats or dogs were moved to nibble it. As well … I’m sad that you are going to get rid of your monkshood. You should see it up in the Forteau, L’Anse-au-Clair area — every garden seems to have a few big clumps, both the plain and variegated. Very durable and nobody to my knowledge has even tried to eat it … man nor beast!”

Search poisonous perennials, and lupins, calla lilies, buttercups, Chinese lanterns, lobelia, iris, hellebores, spurge, foxgloves, bleeding hearts, delphiniums, lily of the valley, chrysanthemums, columbine and artemisia are just some of the species that keep company with monkshood and ivy.

You wouldn’t eat a strange mushroom or toadstool so I guess its just common sense not to eat ornamental plants unless you know for sure that they are edible. If you’ve never seen it served as a food or a garnish, like violas or nasturtiums in a salad, don’t eat it.

If I had to give up growing foxgloves and delphiniums I might just give up gardening all together, but I have never been tempted to eat one.

So, one tragic case notwithstanding, not only would I like to keep my monkshood, but I’d also like to get some of the purple and white variety that Patsy mentioned. I had some in Stephenville and it was just lovely. And sooo easy.

Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published in October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size

photographs, as they are too small to publish.