I’ve been on the road talking about wicked plants for a month, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. People gave me necklaces of poisonous seeds after learning at my talk that their jewelry was deadly and deciding they didn’t want them around anymore. People shared their plant poisoning horror stories. And lots of people asked me this question: Why don’t garden centers identify poisonous plants?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question. If you’re a dog owner and you come home (as one woman who just e-mailed me described) and find that your dog has nibbled the fronds of your lovely new houseplant, and then you find out that the lovely new houseplant is a sago palm, which is highly toxic to dogs, and then you rush your dog to the vet where he spends three days in intensive care and just barely survives–well, if that happened to you, you might just wish there had been a warning label at the garden center.
But look at it from the perspective of the garden center owner. Most of the plants you sell are not edible. With the exception of the veggie starts and the herbs and fruit trees, almost everything you sell is not food. Don’t eat any of it, you might tell your customers. Don’t eat the shrubs or the trees or the shovels or the rakes or the fertilizer or the bug spray. This is not food.
From that perspective, a garden center is not too different from, say, an office supply store or a drugstore. Does a shopkeeper really have to go around and put poison labels on the batteries, the bandages, the dish soap, the pens, and the printer cartridges? None of those things are food, and it’s assumed that you won’t eat them.
And here’s the real question. Where does it end? Maybe our well-meaning garden center owner puts a warning label on the sago palm (poisonous to dogs), the lilies (toxic to cats) and the most deadly human poisons, like castor bean, monkshood, daphne, lantana, etc. But does that mean that any plant without a poison label is guaranteed to be safe? Would the garden center owner have to worry about getting sued for failing to properly label a plant?
And what if a new plant comes into the garden center and there’s simply not any reliable information yet on its toxicity?
Would it be enough to post a broad disclaimer explaining that just because a plant is not labeled, don’t assume you can eat it?
Would it be enough to offer a shelf of reference books and brochures that list poisonous plants so people can look them up?
And–would garden centers (or the growers who supply the plants, with labels, to garden centers) be more likely to try some common-sense labeling if there was one agreed-upon industry-wide list of plants that should come with a label? That way each individual store isn’t having to figure it out for themselves, and maybe they’d be less likely to be the target of blame as long as they adhered to the list.
I include some links to poisonous plant references on my website, but as you can imagine, it’s hard to come up with one list that works all over the country and contains enough information for people to make informed choices. For instance, this list contains hydrangea and foxglove along with deadly nightshade, castor bean, water hemlock, and poison ivy. But it doesn’t tell you exactly how poisonous each plant is, and of course something like poison ivy isn’t going to be sold at a garden center anyway.
But are these lists good enough for a garden center owner?
Or should it just be” gardener beware”?
Below: a photo of my poison garden, and a couple of the rest of the garden. As you can see, it’s been at its crazy, overgrown peak all month while I’ve been on the road.