Poisonous Plants: Hellebore, Oleander and Vinca or Periwinkle
If you didn't know that hellebores, oleander and periwinkle (Vinca major and Vinca minor) are poisonous, this is a warning to you!
Do not be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking only a few plants are poisonous, such as the well-known ones digitalis (foxglove), hemlock, mistletoe and deadly nightshade.
No, no, no!
These three plants will not necessarily kill you,
but could make you ill
Common Names of Hellebore
Some common names are species-specific, including
- Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)
- Christmas rose (H. niger)
- Fragrant hellebore and sweet hellebore (H. odorus)
- Lenten rose (H. orientalis)
- Purple hellebore (H. purpurascens)
- Green hellebore (H. viridis)
Symptoms of Hellebore Poisoning
Hellebores contain glycosides variously named helleborin(e), helleborein(e) and helleborigenin(e). In common with many of the buttercup family, hellebores also contain protoanemonin in varying amounts according to the species.
The roots of all Helleborus are strongly emetic and potentially fatal. In the past, it was sometimes used to cause vomiting after poisoning but this is now known to be harmful. Some varieties were used in the past to treat worms in children, the idea being to expel the worms by vomiting. Some varieties of worm remain in the stomach so this treatment may sometimes have been successful. Where the worms had moved to the gut, however, it would seem that the dose would be repeated and increased, often resulting in the death of the child.
Hellebores are said to produce diarrhoea and have caused cardiac (heart) problems.
Sap and Seeds From Hellebores Are Poisonous to Touch
Be very careful when harvesting hellebore seeds. It is best to wait until the seed pods dry out and then just shake them into a container or collect them from the ground.
This summer I was myself poisoned by hellebore sap—my fingers turned black, as though badly burned. Here's how it happened:
I picked the seed pods whilst the seeds were still green, and spent about twenty minutes squeezing the seeds out of the pods, so that my fingers were in constant contact with the sap. I began to feel a tingling pins-and-needles feeling in my fingers and thumbs and it got so bad that I felt dizzy and had to sit down and my hands felt partly paralyzed and burning. After a few more minutes I realized what had caused the problem and ran my hands under cold water to wash away the juice. My fingers turned very red, almost purple, and were throbbing.
After 24 hours they were, if anything, worse, and I went to the doctor, who said I had done the right thing washing off the poison; she prescribed an emollient cream to rub on, and I certainly needed that. Over the next few days the skin on my fingers and thumbs turned almost black and became so hard and chitinous that I could actually hear them scratching like a beetle when I tapped them on the table. They were very painful and burning.
Numerous Garden Hellebores, All Poisonous
Hellebores flower shortly after Christmas; they flower for about three months, sometimes more. The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, is fairly low growing, with palmate leaves. Some of them are taller, up to 2 or 3 feet high. Hellebores are mostly creamy white tinged with green, sometimes with mauve or pink colours.
They are self-seeding and propagate very easily from the seeds which form in large seedpods when the flowers have finished. Hellebores are useful plants in the garden, because they grow well in shade or half-sun, and have ornate large green palmate leaves which fill up empty spaces in winter when other plants have died back. The buds start forming in December, ready to burst forth in late winter or early spring.
Purple Hellebore (Helleborus x Hybridus)
This hellebore is more unusual. I must confess, I sneaked into my neighbours' front garden when they were away to take this photo—I mean, fancy going away when you have something like this coming into bloom—isn't it beautiful?
Death of Socrates from Hemlock by Jacques-Louise David
2. Oleander (Nerium oleander)
Oleander (Nerium oleander) is one of the most dangerous poisonous plants. The whole plant is poisonous, and even water that the cut plants have stood in is poisonous. It grows wild in Mediterranean countries.
Medical Uses: Oleander contains the principal cardiac glycosides oleandrin, which can be used instead of digitalis, and neriine, as well as folinerin and digitoxigenin. The cardiovascular system may be affected by the glycosides oleandrin, oleandroside, and nerioside. The two most potent poisons are oleandrin and neriine, known for their powerful effect on the heart.
Symptoms: Oleander causes intense abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, drowsiness, dizziness, visual disturbances, rapid pulse, an irregular heartbeat and heart malfunction, often causing death. The sap in contact with the skin can cause dermatitis, blistering, irritation and soreness.
Treatment consists of inducing the patient to vomit, stomach pumping, or feeding activated charcoal in order to absorb as much of the poison as possible. The odds of surviving increase dramatically If the victim survives the initial 24 hours after ingestion.
More About Oleander Poison: Oleander poison is so strong that it can poison a person who simply eats the honey made by bees that have digested oleander nectar.
If taken internally it is deadly to humans and most animals. Cattle, sheep and goats can be killed by drinking water into which leaves of oleander have fallen.
The poisons are said to survive burning, so cooking over a fire of oleander wood is said to cause the poison to transfer via the smoke to meat being cooked. During the Peninsular Wars some of Wellington's soldiers are said to have died after eating meat cooked on skewers made from the wood.
Soldiers sleeping on oleander branches were reported to have died according to the Gardener's Chronicle in 1880.
In 1989, the Western Journal of Medicine reported the case of an 83-year old woman who attempted suicide by drinking a tea made of an infusion of oleander leaves. She suffered severe bradycardia with a pulse rate of 40 and was treated with atropine to counteract this. There are other reports in the literature of failed suicide attempts.
There are reports of a wide range of animals being poisoned by oleander, including sheep, cattle, horses, canaries, budgerigars, donkeys, a sloth and a bear. In general, farm animals sense that they should avoid contact with oleander. and, because of this, in Mediterranean countries oleander is sometimes used as a field boundary in preference to a fence.
Periwinkle (Vinca major and Vinca minor) is a mildly poisonous plant. Periwinkle or vinca has small shiny leaves, and small violet star-shaped flowers in spring and then intermittently during summer and autumn.
Vinca is evergreen and low-lying and gradually spreads, so needs to be kept under control. It is a useful plant because it is good ground cover, even growing rampantly under trees. It is happy in sun or shade, but needs watering if the weather is hot and dry.
Vinca major is a close relative of oleander but is far less harmful. Eating vinca plants can cause systemic toxicity varying from mild abdominal cramping to serious cardiac (heart) complications
Medicinal use: Vinca contains a group of alkaloids including vinchristine and vinblastine, both of which are used in chemotherapy. Vinca has been used to treat high blood pressure and control excessive bleeding, but overdose results in hypotension (low blood pressure), which can cause collapse.
Poisonous Plant: Vinca Major
A List of Common Plants Poisonous to Humans
Grow poisonous plants, by all means, but be alert to the dangers. You need to be particularly wary of poisonous plants if there are children around—they love red and white berries, and it is so easy for them to snap the stems of plants which then exude poisonous sap. You know what kids are like; if their fingies are sticky, they lick them.
Periwinkle (Vinca Minor and Vinca Major)
Rhubarb (the leaves)
Castor Oil Plant (Ricin comes from this plant)
Potato (the green parts of this plant)
Have I frightened you enough yet?
The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia Of Plants And Flowers - You Can't Go Wrong With This Informative Book
I think it is an important safety measure to have a reference book about things which will keep you safe from harm.
The RHS is the foremost gardening organization in the UK. I have owned the older version of this encyclopedia for many years, and call it "my plant bible". Every time I want to plant something or check growing conditions, out comes the book, which I keep on my conservatory window ledge for ready reference.
The Most Important Thing is to Keep Children and Animals Away from Poisonous Plants
Take This Poll about Poisonous Plants
Vote here and test yourself against the others. Did you learn anything new and unexpected?
Were you aware that Hellebore, Oleander and Periwinkle are poisonous plants before reading this article?
Here Are Some Useful Links To More Articles About Poisonous Plants And One About Plants That Like Shade
- Poisonous Plants: Lily of the Valley, Poison Ivy, and Foxglove (Digitalis)
Learning to recognize common poisonous plants in your garden can help you avoid dangers.
- Poisonous Garden Plants: Iris, Azalea, Hydrangea
Iris, Azalea, and Hydrangea are poisonous garden plants - which parts of plant, symptoms, what to do in case of emergency. Protect children, wash hands after touching. May be poisonous to pets
- Hellebores: Beautiful Flowers of Late Winter and Spring
Hellebores bloom mainly in late winter and spring. Their flowers are an attractive and welcome sight in nature, gardens, and landscaped areas. Lenten and Christmas roses are types of hellebores. Many other species and cultivars of hellebores exist
- Plants That Will Grow in the Shade
Many plants grow in shade. If you know which plants are shade-loving, you can plant them in the right place so they are more likely to thrive.
Here's a YouTube Video About Poisonous Plants
Have You Got Any Comments About Poisonous Plants?
It would be interesting to hear how common such poisoning is among our community. But do come and visit and leave your comments, even if you haven't got any lurid stories to tell. I love to hear from people round the world.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
If hellebores are poisonous, why does it seem that so many sites seem to encourage planting it? We saw it in a neighbor's backyard, and it is very pretty and easy to grow, but if it's dangerous, why isn't there more warning against growing it?
There are many ornamental garden plants which are poisonous, but this does not mean that they are emitting poisonous gas. The poison usually lies in the sap or seeds, and I suppose the sites you refer to simply assume that people will be careful about skin contact or eating or licking fingers after touching plants. I agree it does seem strange that they don't come with a warning.Helpful 2
I planted vinca at the base of my orange and lemon trees. Does this mean the fruit will be poisonous?
I don't think vinca would poison the fruit trees. I looked up the Royal Horticultural Society website, and I am sure that if this had been the case, they would have mentioned it. Vinca is only mildly poisonous.