Foxglove and other poisonous plants
These are some of the most poisonous plants you might encounter on a woodland walk, with tips on how to recognise them and intriguing facts about what makes them dangerous to people and dogs.
These plants are beautiful and a vital part of the ecosystem - many are a food source for insects. So enjoy looking at them but take care and don't touch them.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
What it is and where it grows: deadly nightshade, with its ominous reputation, has purple-green, bell-shaped flowers and un-toothed, oval leaves. The berries are green and they ripen to black. You’ll find it mainly in the southern half of the UK in woodland, along paths and in scrubby areas.
Toxicity and symptoms: all parts of the plant are toxic, but the berries are especially poisonous. They contain a mixture of tropane alkaloids that affect the nervous system. Atropine, in particular, causes severe symptoms in humans, including sweating, vomiting, breathing difficulties, confusion, hallucinations and potential coma and death. It also has a pupil-widening effect that was known in ancient Greece. An extract of 'belladonna' (Italian for 'beautiful woman') was used to make eye drops which were applied by women to dilate their pupils.
Credit: Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
What it is and where it grows: you'll see this familiar woodland plant, with its tall spikes of pink and purple flowers, in early summer. It grows throughout the UK, along woodland edges, roadside verges, hedgerows and in gardens.
Toxicity and symptoms: foxglove plants contain toxic cardiac glycosides. Ingestion of any parts of the plant (and often the leaves usually as a result of misidentification for comfrey, Symphytum officinale) can result in severe poisoning. Symptoms include nausea, headache, skin irritation and diarrhoea. In severe cases it can lead to visual and perceptual disturbances and heart and kidney problems.
Foxgloves have also widely been used in folk medicine, and in conventional medicine, their cardiac glycosides have been used to make a heart stimulant drug.
Lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum)
What it is and where it grows: also known as cuckoo pint, you’ll find this plant in woodland and along hedgerows. It has large, arrow-shaped, purple-spotted leaves at the base of the plant. Its flowering spike has a yellow-green hood (technically known as a spathe) surrounding the flower spike (spadix). Its berries are green, orange or red, depending on their ripeness.
Toxicity and symptoms: take care when handling this plant. All parts of it can cause allergic reactions, but the berries are particularly poisonous. The plant contains minute needle-shaped crystals which can severely irritate the skin. Consumption can lead to throat swelling, breathing difficulties and stomach irritation. It’s rare to accidentally eat large quantities of this plant because it has an acrid taste and gives a tingling sensation which acts as a warning.
Credit: Mike Read / Alamy Stock Photo
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)
What it is and where it grows: also known as Adam and Eve or devil’s helmet, this is one of the UK’s most poisonous plants. It’s widely naturalised, but may be native in damp woodlands, meadows and along ditches in the southern half of the UK. Its attractive hooded blue flowers have made it a popular garden plant and you’ll find cultivars in varying colours including pink, yellow and white. Its flowers grow on tall spikes that bloom between June and September.
Toxicity and symptoms: all parts of the plant are poisonous, particularly the roots. If ingested, it can cause stomach pain and dizziness. The poison also affects the heart and in large amounts can be fatal, but poisonings are rare as it has such an unpleasant flavour. Toxins can even transfer to the skin via cuts, so it is important to always wear gloves when handling plants in your garden.
Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. They have been used in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to poison harpoon tips used in whaling.
Credit: jph9362 / iStock.com
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
What it is and where it grows: poison hemlock is sometimes confused with other species in the Apiaceae family such as cow parsley. It’s a large plant up to 2m tall, with hollow, purple-blotched stems. The mature plants have an unpleasant smell apparently similar to mouse urine. You’ll find it in damp areas along the edges of woodland, along ditches, streams and roadside verges.
Toxicity and symptoms: it contains several toxic alkaloids including coniine and is poisonous to humans and livestock. Consumption of just a small amount of any part of the plant can cause respiratory paralysis and death.
Credit: Anne Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Advice in case of accidental poisoning in people
- If you think a child or adult has eaten part of a suspect plant, seek medical advice immediately from a hospital accident & emergency department.
- Take a sample of the plant with you (as many parts of the plant as you can for accurate identification eg. leaves, flowers, fruits, stem).
- Do not panic and do not try to make the person sick.
Poisonous plants to dogs: what to look out for
There are some really common plants that cause canine poisoning, especially spring bulbs. Incidents of poisoning from bulbs are most likely to occur when dogs dig up and eat the bulbs either in autumn when they are planted, or in spring when they begin to flower.
Daffodils (Narcissus species)
Effects from poisoning can include vomiting, stomach upset and salivation, but can escalate to dogs appearing sleepy, wobbly on their legs, or collapsing. In more serious cases it can result in changes to heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure, and even lead to a seizure. Dogs can also become unwell if the flowers are eaten, or if water from a vase containing daffodils is drunk.
Tulips (Tulipa species)
The toxins found in tulips cause irritation to the mouth and gastrointestinal tract and usually only result in drooling, vomiting and diarrhoea. Serious cases are rare, but effects could include heart problems and breathing difficulties.
Crocus (Crocus species)
These flower in spring and are said to be of low toxicity and may only cause a mild stomach upset if eaten. These bulbs are not to be confused with autumn crocus, which flower in autumn and can cause severe stomach upset, kidney and liver problems and bone marrow depression.
Tomato plant (Solanum lycopersicum)
The favourite plant of many vegetable growers - the humble tomato is harmful to dogs. It's not surprising really, since this species is in the same family as deadly nightshade. Eating the leaves and stems can cause stomach pain, weakness, difficulty breathing and slow heart rate. The actual tomatoes are okay so long as they’re ripe.
Rhododendron (Rhododendron species)
All parts of a rhododendron plant, including the leaves, stems and bloom, are toxic to dogs. Only a small amount of rhododendron is needed to cause health problems if your dog eats part of the plant. Small dogs will typically experience more severe toxic effects than large dogs eating the same amount of rhododendron.
What should I do if I think my dog's eaten a poisonous plant?
Don’t leave anything to chance - contact your vet immediately for advice and don’t wait for any possible symptoms to develop. The quicker you get medical attention for your dog, the more likely its chance of recovery.