Poisonous Plants: Safe Substitutes

Poisonous plants may look good in your landscape, but they can harm children and pets. Here are alternatives that help curb appeal but don’t harm little ones.

A dab of oleander on the skin can cause blistering; much more serious problems occur if it's ingested. Image: G.A. Cooper/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Poisonous plants can harm little ones — human and canine. One castor bean from the popular castor oil plant contains enough ricin to kill a child or pet. And ingesting even a small amount of foxglove, a flower garden favorite, can stop a heart.

Your landscaping doesn’t have to suffer to keep your children and pets safe. Here are some dangerous plants and their kid- and pet-friendly substitutes.

Ricinus (castor oil plant)

Beans from the same plant that produces castor oil can cause vomiting (if you’re lucky), and organ system shutdown, if you’re not. Plants have attractive, star-shaped leaves and grow quickly, making them attractive hedge plants.

Safe alternative: Chaenomeles (flowering quince). In spring, this tangle of branches produces a feast of blossoms; in fall, you can eat the fruit or turn it into jelly.

Digitalis (foxglove, Dead Men’s Bells)

This cluster of bell-shaped flowers contains digitoxin, which can slow the heart and produce cardiac arrest.

Safe alternative: Delphinium. These sturdy stalks are packed with striking blossoms. 

Convallaria (Lily of the Valley)

These delicate white plants deliver a 1-2 poison punch. They contain convallotoxin, which causes slow and irregular heartbeats, and saponins, which can cause gastric poisoning.

Safe alternative: Galanthus (snowdrops). These lovely white blossoms are the first sign of spring in many parts of the country: In the South, they are known to bloom through winter.

Nerium Oleander (oleander)

Ingestion of the sticky sap of the fragrant oleander plant can cause vomiting, diarrhea, rapid pulse, and death; a dab of sap on the skin can cause blistering. Never burn oleander because fumes are noxious, too.

Safe alternative: Camellia. More than 200 species have been described of this fragrant, evergreen shrub, which can produce blossoms up to 5 inches wide, in a rainbow of colors, in dry and wet climates.

Aconitum (wolfsbane, monkshood)

This vine with purple flowers grows in woodlands throughout the U.S. and can cause delirium, hallucinations, severe gastrointestinal problems, and a drop in heart rate. All parts of the plants are poisonous: Children who hold the vine for a long time can absorb its toxic alkaloid and die.

Safe alternative: Lonicera (honeysuckle). Easy-to-grow trellis vines with show-stopping and fragrant flowers. Hummingbirds love its nectar, and songbirds will eat its fruit in the fall.

Prunus laurocerasus (cherry laurel)

Chewing cherry laurel leaves releases cyanide, which robs the central nervous system of oxygen and causes death.

Safe alternative: Laurus nobilis (bay laurel). An evergreen shrub whose aromatic leaves—dried or fresh—add flavor to soups and stews.