When I visit friends or family who have houseplants and young children, they compare me to “Aunt Bonnie” from the Geico “Aunt Infestation” commercial.
In it, a young couple who have just moved into a new house complain about having pests, not ants, but overbearing “aunts.” Like the one who declares that the condiments in your fridge are “Expired! Expired! Expired!”, he would invariably invade room after room of my hosts’ homes exclaiming, “Toxic! Toxic! Toxic!”
I am pointing out houseplants that should be kept out of children’s mouths. And I don’t mind dashing my friends’ hopes of an Instagram-worthy indoor jungle if it means potentially preventing damage.
“We get an average of 33,000 calls a year from people whose children put different plants in their mouths,” said Kaitlyn Brown, chief clinical officer at the United States Poison Centers in Arlington, Virginia. “It is mainly toddlers who are crawling who have problems with houseplants because they explore their environment and put everything in their mouths.”
Most accidental exposures are not serious, he said, “but in some cases the irritant effect becomes severe enough to affect respiration, and also some plants can cause skin or eye burns.”
Recently, I saw a beautiful, mature Diffenbachia in the kitchen of a cousin’s house. She said that her son, who had just started to crawl, had shown an interest in her foliage.
So I had to tell him that the plant earned its common name, mute cane, from the archaic term for mute. Chewing on a piece of its stem can leave someone temporarily but painfully speechless, as the calcium oxalate crystals it contains can cause inflammation of the throat and mouth. Exposure to its sap can cause irritation to the nose, eyes, and skin.
Caladium, flamingo flower (Anthurium), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), philodendron and pothos (Epipremnum) also contain oxalate crystals. The latter two are vining plants, which require more vigilance because they can grow downward from what was considered a safe, out-of-reach spot.
Amaryllis and its relatives, including clivia and narcissus, contain lycorine, a toxic alkaloid that can cause varying degrees of abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
If you suspect your child has bitten a stem, leaf, flower, root, or bulb, call the national poison control center (1-800-222-1222) for guidance. “It’s always best to call so we can advise on what symptoms to watch for or help decide if they need to go to the hospital,” Brown said.
Teach children not to put non-food parts of plants in their mouths. Also educate yourself by researching whether your plants are safe to grow around children. Learn their botanical names so you can give them to a poison specialist or medical personnel in the event of an incident. Keep the plant label handy or write each plant’s name under its pot for quick reference.
Not all houseplants are problematic, of course. Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are not only non-toxic, but are among the most prolific and easy to grow houseplants.
African Violets (Saintpaulia), Boston Ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata), Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera), Wax Plants (Hoya), Parlor Palms (Chamaedorea elegans), Radiator Plants (Peperomia), Prayer Plants (Maranta leuconeura) and baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) are other safe options. So are culinary herbs.
However, while non-toxic plants probably won’t make you seriously ill, they shouldn’t be eaten and could cause stomach irritation and other unpleasant symptoms.
Start your research on potential risks at PoisonHelp.org or your local poison control center’s website. And err on the side of caution; You’ll do Aunt Bonnie proud.
Jessica Damiano writes regular gardening columns for The Associated Press. She publishes the award winning Weekly Dirt Newsletter. Sign up here for weekly gardening tips and advice.
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