With the recent announcement that the potentially very dangerous giant hogweed plant had been found in Calhoun County, Michigan, it seems like a good time to bring up the subject of toxic plants that are more commonly found in and around Las Vegas. Since giant hogweed tends to grow in areas with more rain, like New Zealand, Great Britain and the northeast United States, it’s not something that we really need to worry about here, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our fair share of fauna that’s willing to bite you in the butt given half a chance.
Most people are aware of the fact that oleander are toxic, due in no small part to a Michelle Pfeiffer movie from the 90’s called White Oleander. What they don’t usually realize is that there are plenty of other plants that are just as toxic growing all around our Valley, the vast majority of which have been purposefully planted for ornamental or practical purposes.
Potatoes, tomatoes and peppers are all toxic if you eat the leaves. They’re all members of the nightshade family, which includes a number of other agricultural crops that can cause big problems for anyone who ingests the wrong part of the plant, including the seeds and roots in some cases. The nightshade group, known botanically as the Solanaceae family, actually consists of everything from fruit-producing shrubs and flowering vines to trees and epiphytes (also known as air plants).
Another member of the nightshade family that’s actually native to the West is Datura, which grows freely in the desert, often in or near dry riverbeds. These plants are profuse bloomers and their flowers look like something from a Dr. Seuss book, but eating any part of them can result in some seriously unpleasant side effects. There are Native American cultures known to have used datura seeds in order to induce spiritual awakenings, but taking them without knowing what you’re doing is definitely not advisable. Aside from vivid hallucinations and delirium, datura toxicity can make a person violently ill for days or even lead to death when taken in high doses. Reading about the datura trips that others have taken, on the other hand, is enormously compelling stuff. One account I found involved a person high on datura getting into an argument with the guy in the mirror who wouldn’t stop mimicking him. Others described incoherently wandering the streets for days, trying to avoid imaginary meteorites and freaking out because a riderless bicycle is driving itself down the road. You can read one idiot’s full account of tripping on datura seeds here.
One of the most toxic landscaping plants in Las Vegas is the sago palm, which can be especially dangerous due to the fact that it’s used both in outdoor landscapes and as a houseplant. Although toxic plants aren’t normally known for being savory, it appears that some animals find this one to be quite tasty, creating another cause for concern. All segments of the sago are poisonous to both humans and animals if ingested, but the seeds are particularly toxic, producing symptoms of liver failure and intestinal distress within 12 hours of consumption. If you’re curious about just how bad it can get, this post offers a full description of the toxicity of sago palms and their effects on the body.
Lantana is a favorite landscaping plant here in Las Vegas, but I’d be willing to bet that they’d be ripped out of a lot of yards if people knew that the little berries they produce are toxic. For the record, there’s no evidence that a person would die from eating these berries, but they can definitely cause stomach upset and possible vomiting and/or diarrhea. The desert birds-of-paradise and the Ligustrums, commonly known as privets, will cause similar problems if the leaves, berries or seedpods are ingested.
The good news is that plants which are toxic tend to taste pretty awful, so it’s highly unusual for them to be consumed in enough of a quantity to do any serious damage. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve personally never known a single person who became sick from eating a plant and I’ve known some pretty stupid people who wouldn’t hesitate to put an unfamiliar object into their mouth. Think about it: you’ve probably noticed that it’s fairly common to see oleander, lantana and privets lining the playgrounds of elementary schools throughout Vegas, but how many news reports or personal stories of a child being poisoned have you heard?
On a visit to the education garden of a local school a few years ago, I noticed that there was a stunning datura plant growing just off one of the trails and commented on it to the teacher who was in charge.
“It’s an education garden,” she replied. “Showing the kids that there are pretty plants that are extremely toxic in the world is one of the best ways for them to learn not to go around eating random leaves and seeds.”
I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with that philosophy, but I personally couldn’t agree more. Leave your plants in, supervise your small children and please, for the love of God, teach them to stop putting strange things in their mouths. The rest of us find it awkward to watch.