A recent email from a reader telling of the tragic death of her dog after consuming the seed of a sago palm set me to thinking: "How many garden plants out there are toxic to dogs and cats?" A simple Google search revealed an astonishing answer -- literally hundreds and hundreds. In fact, looking through my garden, it was hard to find a plant growing in it that wouldn't sicken or kill these pets if certain plant parts were ingested.
That begs the question: why are cats and dogs still running around in our neighborhoods? Given the ubiquity of pet-toxic plants, shouldn't all of them be poisoned and dead by now?
No. The reason is that most plants toxic to cats and dogs don't look palatable and don't taste good, so pets ignore them. Azaleas are a great example. They're found in just about every yard where they will grow. And they can be lethal to dogs and cats if consumed. Why don't we find stacks of dog and cat corpses surrounding every azalea in the yard? Because dogs and cats don't eat them. They may pee on them, but they don't eat them.
The plants you really need to worry about are the ones that produce a berry, fruit, seed, nut, or flower that looks tasty to animals and is capable of severely sickening or killing your pet. (FYI, many of them have the same effect on you.) Here are eight.
Pet Poisoner #1 -- Yews (Taxus sp.)
This group of needleleaf, evergreen shrubs bear bright red, soft, juicy fruits that look yummy. They can kill.
Pet Poisoner #2 -- Castor Bean (Ricinus communis)
This striking plant is widely grown in the South for its bold, exotic foliage and colorful seed pods. Unfortunately, all parts of it are extremely toxic to animals, particularly the seeds. They contain a substance called ricin that is much more powerful than cyanide. Say sayonara to any pet that eats one.
Plant Poisoner #3 -- Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
Chinaberry is a weedy tree imported from China that grows practically anywhere it's cold-hardy. Clusters of fragrant, lilac-colored flowers in spring give rise to yellow, berrylike fruit in summer and fall that turn soft and squishy when they hit the ground. Farewell, Fido, if he eats them.
Plant Poisoner #4 -- Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica)
Heavenly bamboo is a very popular landscape shrub in the South because it grows in sun or shade, is nearly impossible to kill, and bears large clusters of bright-red, long-lasting berries in fall and winter that are great for holiday decorating. If your pet eats too many of them, however, your next Christmas gift could be a jar of ashes.
Pet Poisoner #5 -- Foxglove (Digtalis purpurea)
One look at the magnificent, stately spires of this biennial tells you why it's so common in our gardens. Trouble is, every part of the plant is extremely toxic to pet and pet owner. Don't decorate your salad with the flowers -- or Fluffy's food bowl either.
Pet Poisoner #6 -- Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta)
Prized for its handsome, feathery fronds, this shrub has separate sexes that are easily distinguished when they flower. The male produces a conical structure covered with pollen from the center of the fronds. He's no threat to pets. Females, however, produce a ball-shaped structure that develops egg-shaped, red or orange seeds. One seed can kill your pet. Moral of the story -- never trust a female.
Pet Poisoner #7 -- Milkweed (Asclepias sp.)
How can this be? How can an American wildflower, the sole source of food for our treasured monarch butterflies, be a danger to cats and dogs? Sorry, I don't make up this stuff, I just report the facts. And the facts say that all parts of a milkweed plant are potentially fatal if ingested by dogs and cats. So if you're adding milkweeds to your garden to see more monarchs, you may be seeing fewer bundles of love.
Pet Poisoner #8 -- Lilies (Lilium sp.)
Fans of dead cat jokes will appreciate this one. Lilies -- all kinds of lilies -- are no danger to dogs, but deadly to cats if ingested. Hmmmm. I have a 20-year old, cantankerous, neurotic cat whose cacophonous yowling every two hours during the night is driving me insane. I think he needs a little gift to reassure him that he's loved. What will it be? Oh, I don't know. A lily?