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Pretty but poisonous: watch toddlers around these houseplants


When visiting friends or family who have both houseplants and young children, I have been compared to “Aunt Bonnie” from the Geico “Aunt Infestation” commercial.

In it, a young couple who have just moved into a new house complain of having pests – not ants but overbearing “aunts”. Like the one who declares the condiments in his refrigerator “expired!” Expired! Expired ! I invariably invaded room after room of the houses of my hosts exclaiming: “Toxic! Toxic! Toxic!”

I point out houseplants that should be kept out of children’s mouths. And I don’t mind dashing Friends’ hopes of an Instagram-worthy inner jungle if it means potentially preventing harm.

“We get an average of 33,000 calls a year from people whose kids put different herbs in their mouths,” said Kaitlyn Brown, clinical chief executive of the U.S. Poison Control Centers in Arlington, Virginia. “It’s mainly crawling toddlers who have trouble with houseplants because they’re exploring their surroundings and putting everything in their mouths.”

Most accidental exposures aren’t serious, she said, “but in some cases the irritating effect becomes severe enough to affect breathing, and some plants can also cause skin or eye burns.” .

Recently I spotted a beautiful mature Diffenbachia in the kitchen of a cousin’s house. She said her son, who had just started crawling, had shown interest in her foliage.

It is therefore incumbent upon me to tell him that the plant derives its common name, mute cane, from the archaic term meaning mute. Chewing part of its stem can temporarily but painfully render someone speechless, as the calcium oxalate crystals it contains can cause swelling in the throat and mouth. Exposure to its sap can cause nose, eye and skin irritation.

Caladium, flamingo flower (Anthurium), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), philodendron and pothos (Epipremnum) also contain crystals of oxalate. These last two are climbing plants, which require more vigilance as they can grow downwards from what was considered a safe and out of reach place.

Amaryllis and its relatives, including clivia and daffodil, contain lycorine, a toxic alkaloid that can cause varying degrees of abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

If you suspect your child has chewed on a stem, leaf, flower, root or bulb, call the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) for advice. “It’s always best to call so we can advise you on symptoms to watch out for or help decide if they should go to the hospital,” Brown said.


Teach children not to put non-food plant parts in their mouths. Also educate yourself by researching if your plants are safe to grow around children. Learn their botanical names so you can provide 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 indoor plants are problematic, of course. Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are not only non-toxic, but are among the most prolific and easily grown houseplants.

African Violets (Saintpaulia), Boston Ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata), Christmas Cacti (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. The same goes for culinary herbs.

Still, while non-toxic plants probably won’t make you seriously ill, they’re not meant to be eaten and could cause stomach irritation and other unpleasant symptoms.

Start researching potential risks at or your local poison control center’s website. And err on the side of caution; you’ll make Aunt Bonnie proud.


Jessica Damiano regularly writes gardening columns for The Associated Press. It publishes the award-winning Weekly Dirt Newsletter. Sign up here for weekly gardening tips and tricks.


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