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Beauty and the beast

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We take great pleasure in the beauty of our gardens. But below some of the beauty lurks a beast.

That showy patch of monkshood in the front yard, the meandering foxglove in the backyard, those big tomato leaves we push aside in our search for the fruit — all poisonous.

It is a bit of a shock for sure. But let’s remember that most of our medicines, and poisons, come from plants.

For the most part, we have to eat the plant to be poisoned by it. But for some, simply touching the plant is all it takes.

In our hardiness-growing zone, monkshood (Aconitum) is one of few where both ingestion and contact can be a source of poisoning. This late summer flowering perennial, with its deeply lobed leaves and spikes of lovely purple flowers, is undemanding and reliable. Yet all parts of it are poisonous to eat, and simply touching it can cause trouble as it can be absorbed through the skin.

Ironically, many of us end up with monkshood in our gardens through gifts from friends and family. We’re not trying to poison each other! It’s easily grown and therefore one we naturally want to share. The gloves and long-sleeved shirts we wear to protect ourselves from scratches and bugs when gardening are essential for handling this particular plant. You don’t want your skin to come into contact with it. An acquaintance of mine had a very serious reaction even with the protection of gloves and sleeves, so do not take this plant for granted. It is a very poor choice for a yard where children or dogs spend any time.

Ingesting plants is the more common source of poisoning. Berries and seeds can be irresistible to children and pets. Flowers have become part of the menu in these times of culinary adventure. Berries, seeds, flowers, as well as leaves and bulbs can all be poisonous.

In our hardiness-growing zone, the most toxic plants include: castor bean, trumpet flower (Datura), lily-of-the-valley, delphinium, foxglove, daffodil, nicotiana, snowberry as well as the leaves of both rhubarb and tomato plants.

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