There are few countries that can boast such a wonderful array of beautiful native flowers as Australia, and few countries where they can be so dangerous. In a country populated with so much threatening wildlife, we often overlook the deadly potential of some of our native plants, and many of the ornamental flowers you commonly see in well-kept gardens can be dangerous.
Children are particularly at risk from these flowers, as their tolerances for most plant poisons are significantly lower than that of a full grown adult's; adults are generally less likely to shove a noxious flower in their mouth because it looks pretty. If you have young children, or are landscaping for a family with young children, here are two common ornamentals to avoid:
The oleander is an evergreen shrub grown for its charming white, pink and yellow flowers, and is most commonly seen in cooler southern areas of Australia. Oleander can cause mild skin irritation and dermatitis, but that's just the start of it. Every single part of this flower is toxic if ingested, particularly the leaves and flowers.
However, very few deaths have been reported over the years, usually involving people ingesting 'alternative remedies' containing oleander toxin. This is mostly due to the bitter taste that discourages consumption, but only a relatively small amount of plant matter needs to be ingested for a child to suffer poisoning. Poisoning can also occur if the woody stems are burned for fuel or on a bonfire, as the smoke becomes laced with evaporated poison.
Symptoms of oleander poisoning present rapidly and painfully. Symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
- Severe, possibly bloody diarrhea
- Irregular heartbeat
- Tremors and seizures
- Coma and eventual death if enough oleander toxin has been ingested
Because of this rapid onset of illness, medical treatment must be sought immediately.
Castor oil plant
Considered a weed in years past, the castor oil plant has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as an annual flower for low-maintenance landscaping, due to its extreme hardiness and unusual, spiky scarlet flowers. You may have taken castor oil, the boiled liquid extract of the seeds, as a particularly potent laxative, and this is safe enough. However, the unrefined seeds contain a nasty surprise: ricin.
As you can imagine, these seeds are staggeringly toxic, and only a few need to be ingested before potentially lethal poisoning occurs. Symptoms of poisoning only begin to appear several hours or even days after the seeds are consumed, making these plants particularly dangerous to small children, who may already be severely poisoned by the time you realise something is wrong. Symptoms of ricin poisoning include:
- Vomiting, even when the stomach is empty
- Bleeding from the mouth and rectum
- Severe pain in the mouth and abdomen
- Dehydration and urine retention
- Paleness due to low blood pressure
If treatment is sought promptly, permanent damage can almost always be avoided with stomach pumping and other emergency measures. However, there is no known antidote for ricin poisoning once it has progressed.
Instead of accidentally planting lethal flowers, consult with landscaping experts like Melaleuca Landscapes to learn more about your kid- or pet-friendly plant options.