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Plant Poisons in New Zealand

This wiki is more than a morbid interest in poisons, we lost two alpacas to foxgloves (Sept 2011). The consensus of opinion is that foxgloves are very poisonous but alpacas will ignore it, unfortunately two of ours seem to have eaten it accidentally.

Top poisonous plants in New Zealand to humans, especially children.

The criteria used:

Plants that are consistently involved in unintentional poisonings

The following were assessed and quantified by:

  • Toxicity of plant
  • Number of calls received
  • Age of patient
  • Symptoms presenting

Top 10 poisonous plants in NZ

  • Arum Lily
  • Black Nightshade
  • Euphorbia
  • Iris
  • Oleander
  • Agapanthus
  • Ongaonga (New Zealand Tree Nettle)
  • Hemlock
  • Foxglove
  • Rhus

Elephants dying of Tutu (pronounced tute)

In 1869, an elephant visiting Otago for an exhibition was poisoned by tutu. The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle reported that the owner had driven it inland in search of rich pasture and among the grass was a crop of the poisonous plant.

“The poor animal fed heartily upon this for four hours, then went to a stream and took a long drink, turned, reeled, fell and died in three hours,” the newspaper reported.

In 1956, an elephant travelling with the Bullen Brothers circus died after eating tutu while watering at the Mangawhero River, Conservation Department Tongariro conservator Paul Green said. It was buried behind the railway houses at Ohakune Junction.

Two female Indian elephants, seen eating tutu while travelling in open- sided trucks in 1968, had their story documented by veterinarian Ian Anderson, writing in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal. They began convulsing and crashed to the ground. “Involuntary 'paddling' of the limbs, apparent loss of consciousness, and respiratory distress caused by the trunk coiling tightly were prominent signs,” Dr Anderson said.

Both were injected with barbiturates and made full recoveries.

Poisonous Plants in New Zealand - poisonous if eaten

Angel's trumpet (Brugmansia candida). Named for its large pendulous white flowers, this large, well-known shrub is related to the thorn apple. It is a dangerous plant, as all parts are poisonous. A frost-tender plant mainly found in lowland areas towards the coast.

Apple of Peru (Nicandra physalodes). An annual plant related to the edible-fruited cape gooseberry, but with bell-shaped blue flowers. Most parts are likely to be mildly poisonous.

Apple of Sodom (Solanum linnaeanum). This shrub is so prickly that it does not invite close attention but its fairly large mottled berry (green and white when immature, yellow at maturity) has been reported as poisoning children.

Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica). All parts are poisonous, but take particular care that children do not eat the attractive spikes of yellow-orange berries. Likewise nearly all other members of this family have similar poisonous properties in all their parts. The toxins present mainly affect the alimentary system from the mouth downwards. Even a tiny part ingested can cause burning in the mouth and throat as well as stomach pains and vomiting, the onset of these symptoms occurring dramatically and beginning within a minute or so.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). The small bright red berries produced by mature female plants in summer are mildly poisonous.

Bitter almond (Prunus dulcis). The kernels are poisonous. Note: bitter almonds (with white flowers, pink at the base) are not as common as the ordinary edible form of Prunus dulcis known as almond or sweet almond (all pink flowers).

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara). The small purple flowers and shining scarlet berries are poisonous. Only likely to be found in the south island and southern districts of the north island.

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). This plant is only moderately toxic and the ripe black berries, which are similar to black currants, are scarcely or not poisonous at all. Note: this is the plant most people mistakenly call deadly nightshade. The true deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) can live up to its common name, but is fortunately very rare and only recorded in Christchurch. True deadly nightshade has a relatively large bell-shaped, brownish-purple flower, as opposed to the white star-like flowers of black nightshade, and its glossy black berries can be twice the size of those of black nightshade.

Blueberry lily [see tūrutu]

Boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum). The orange-red berries are probably poisonous. Note that the green spines on boxthorn are often not noticed until the bushes are touched. Mainly occurs wild along the coast, and in some gardens.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius). The seeds are poisonous, especially if chewed and crushed before swallowing. The poisons are similar to those in its relation, the laburnum, but broom seems to be less harmful. Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) has larger flowers and is commonly grown in some areas although it has not naturalised extensively like the common broom. The seeds of the two species are similar and probably have similar poisonous properties.

Bushman's poison (Acokanthera oppositifolia). Although only fairly common and almost confined to warm regions north of the Volcanic Plateau, this South African shrub is included because it is most likely to be grown in the Auckland area. Bushman's poison is one of the most poisonous plants in New Zealand. All parts are toxic, especially the shoots and roots. The fruit is like a small blue-black plum. It belongs in the oleander family of which most members are dangerous.

Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). The attractively mottled seeds are the usual parts eaten, sometimes with serious effects. The New Zealand plants usually have purple leaves.

Celery-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus). This is one of the most toxic species of buttercup. It grows in wet places such as in ditches, along streams and around ponds and lakes. The parts most likely to be put into the mouth are the glossy divided leaves which resemble those of celery. Contact with mouth and lips can produce blistering, but fortunately the bitter burning sensation usually prevents material being swallowed.

Cestrums (Cestrum species). There are several species of these popular ornamental garden shrubs, with flower colours ranging from scarlet and rose to white or orange. Fruit colours are white, black, or sometimes red. All parts are very poisonous. Does not grow in colder areas.

Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). The small black fruits have kernels which are poisonous.

Chilean jasmine (Mandevilla suaveolens). A climbing plant with fragrant white flowers which is usually grown on house walls or trellises. Like many other members of the oleander family, Mandevilla has poisonous white latex in all parts. The long pods are bean-like, but the seeds inside are small and winged. Mainly grown in warmer areas.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale and its hybridS. Íuplandicum). Although the leaves are used as a general tonic, if used in quantity they can be harmful over a prolonged period.

Corsican hellebore (Helleborus lividus subsp. corsicus). A commonly cultivated evergreen herb, all parts of which are poisonous.

Cotoneasters (Cotoneaster species). The pretty red berries, which nearly all species have, seem to be mildly poisonous, but have never caused serious harm. Because they are so abundant in gardens and public places, children may often eat a few berries without parents being aware.

Cruel plant [see moth plant]

Daffodils and jonquils (Narcissus species). These well-known spring flowering bulbs contain poisonous properties and neither flowers nor bulbs should be eaten. Although it is unlikely that enough would be taken to cause illness, they regularly feature in overseas works on poisonous plants, along with snowdrops (Galanthus species) and snowflakes (Leucojum species) and cases of poisoning in humans are known. Similar properties are present in their South African relatives such as species of Nerine, Crinum and Amaryllis. The last is listed separately because one species, belladonna lily (Amaryllis belladonna) is such a common garden plant.

Daphnes (Daphne species). All species are poisonous. A few have attractive red berries.

Datura [see thorn apple]

Deadly nightshade [see black nightshade]

Delphiniums (Delphinium species). All parts are poisonous. [See the closely related larkspurs.]

Dumb canes (Dieffenbachia species). Very common house and patio plants with large deep green leaves variously spotted or streaked with white or cream. The sap is very poisonous as with other members of the arum lily family. Dieffenbachia species are often called “mother in law's tongue” in New Zealand but this name porperly applies to an unrelated plant. The usual English name “dumb cane” relates back to a time when African slaves in the West Indies were tortured with the juice from this plant.

A number of other plants in this family have become more widely grown in recent years as indoor and patio pot plants, especially in warmer parts of the North Island. They are all poisonous and have similar properties to the arum lily.

Elderberry or elder (Sambucus nigra). The large clusters of little black juicy berries can be made into jam or wine, but they easily can cause stomach upsets if too many are eaten raw. It mainly grows from the Volcanic Plateau southwards.

Elephant's ear (Alocasia brisbanensis). It is related to taro (Colocasia esculenta) and is a member of the poisonous arum family. Elephant's ear is a fairly commonly cultivated ornamental plant in warmer parts of the North Island and in the Nelson area, as well as being wild to a limited extent in a few North Island places. Although it can be cooked and eaten like the related taro, elephant's ear seems to be more toxic as shown by the tubers or rhizomes taking much longer for the toxic compounds to be broken down. This is the plant known as kape or 'ape to Pacific Islanders because of an almost indistinguishable relation in the Pacific Islands (Alocasia macrorrhizos) that is cultivated for food.

English holly [see holly]

Fatsia (Fatsia japonica). The berries of this ornamental large-leaved evergreen shrub closely resemble those of its relation, ivy. Although details of the toxicity of Fatsia are unavailable, assume that it is similar to ivy.

Five finger or whauwhaupaku (Pseudopanax arboreus). This very common plant is likely to be poisonous to some degree because it belongs to the ivy family, however no records of poisoning are available. It has blackcurrant sized berries.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). All parts of this widespread weed and garden plant are very poisonous.

Gloriosa lily(Gloriosa superba). All parts of this beautiful climbing plant are poisonous. The tuberous roots are especially dangerous and most reported cases of human poisoning have been caused by eating these.

Hairy nightshade (Solanum physalifolium). This plant has mottled green and white fruits which should be treated as poisonous. It is increasingly found in vegetable gardens, mainly in the Bay of Plenty, but is spreading elsewhere.

Hellebores (Helleborus species). These plants are often grown close to houses and all parts are very poisonous. [see winter rose and Corsican hellebore.]

Hemlock (Conium maculatum). One of our most poisonous plants; all parts should be avoided, especially young plants and seeds. The unpleasant smell and purple markings on the stem easily distinguish this from parsley.

Holly or English holly (Ilex aquifolium). The scarlet berries should not be eaten because, like most parts of the tree, they are poisonous. This well-known tree is mainly grown in colder areas from the Volcanic Plateau southwards.

Horse chestnuts (Aesculus species). The seeds, commonly called conkers, are mildly poisonous. These should not be confused with the edible, but unrelated, sweet chestnut. It is mainly grown in colder areas from the Volcanic Plateau southwards.

Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule). All parts of this common garden plant are very poisonous. It has coloured sap like many other types of poppy but is much more harmful than the other common species found in New Zealand.

Inkweed (Phytolacca octandra). All parts of this plant should be treated as being poisonous, but it is the erect spikes of poisonous black berries which children might find attractive. Rarely found in the southern half of the South Island.

Italian arum (Arum italicum). All parts are very poisonous, including the orange berries.

Ivy (Hedera helix). Most parts are poisonous, including the black berries.

Japanese spindle tree (Euonymus japonicus). This commonly cultivated evergreen shrub has attractive but poisonous pink spindle berries and orange-red coated seeds. Unlike the spindle tree the Japanese spindle tree is evergreen and produces fruit mainly in warmer areas.

Jerusalem cherry (Solanum diflorum and S. pseudocapsicum). For practical purposes these very similar species can be regarded as one. Their orange-red berries are very poisonous.

Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus). The attractive orange fruits are poisonous. However, the situation is not straightforward because the fleshy outer part of the fruit can be eaten raw but the kernel containing the seed has to be detoxified before it can be eaten, the latter being the part prized by Māori people. This traditional food was only safe to eat after a long and complicated process. The trees mainly grow in warmer coastal areas, at least as far south as Banks Peninsula.

Kōwhai (Sophora microphylla and S. tetraptera). The yellow seeds are very poisonous if eaten, but only if they are ground or crushed before swallowing. Otherwise, they pass through the digestive system and cause no harm.

Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides). The black seeds are very poisonous if they are chewed or crushed before swallowing, as with kōwhai. It mainly grows in the southern half of the North Island and in the South Island.

Lantana (Lantana camara). It is more common for children to be affected by eating the small blue-black berries, although stock have been poisoned too. In New Zealand there are several forms with different coloured flowers and differing degrees of toxicity, but to be on the safe side none of them should be eaten. A commonly cultivated shrub in warmer areas but which also grows wild north of Auckland.

Larkspurs (Consolida species). These ornamental annuals are closely related to delphiniums, and all parts are poisonous. Although larkspurs and delphiniums have no fleshy fruits, they are so poisonous that even the pretty flowers could cause illness if eaten. Commonest in colder areas.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). All parts are poisonous if eaten, but the orange berries are most likely to attract young children. Although uncommon, it is presently available in nurseries in the North Island.

Lily of the valley shrubs (Pieris species). Like most members of the heather family, these plants are poisonous. The little white flowers should not be eaten.

Lupins (Lupinus species). All the species commonly grown have poisonous seeds which, if crushed or chewed before being swallowed, result in the release of toxins.

Monkshood (Aconitum species, especially Aconitum napellus). All parts of these herbaceous perennials are very poisonous. It is even dangerous for children to play with the attractive hooded delphinium-like flowers because it seems that toxic substances can be absorbed through the skin, especially delicate areas such as around the mouth. Monkshood grows in all parts of the North Island, and generally through the South Island, especially seen in colder areas, but is rarer than delphiniums.

Morning glories (Ipomoea species). The seeds of some species contain very powerful hallucinogenic drugs. As with other hard seeds, the effects are only evident if they are crushed or chewed before being swallowed.

Moth plant or cruel plant (Araujia sericifera). The white latex in all parts of this plant is poisonous, so the green choko-like fruits of this climber should not be put in the mouth. Mainly grows in warmer areas where it is sometimes naturalised.

Ngaio (Myoporum species). These very poisonous plants mainly grow near the sea, either wild or in cultivation. They are easily identified by the numerous pale leaf spots seen when held to the light, and by the purple berries. Both the native ngaio (M. laetum) and Australian ngaio (M. insulare) should be regarded as equally harmful.

Nightshades (some Solanum species). Species of Solanum should be treated with great caution since they all contain poisonous compounds to some extent, particularly in any green parts. The main species of concern for children are: poroporo, potato, bittersweet, Jerusalem cherry and hairy, woolly and black nightshades.

Oleander (Nerium oleander). All parts are extremely poisonous. Fortunately, the bitter taste deters children from swallowing it. Does not thrive in cold inland areas of both islands.

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Although not as poisonous as Iceland poppy, the opium compounds in this plant make it one to be avoided, particularly by children.

Peach (Prunus persica). The kernels are poisonous but the very hard corrugated stone around them is not easily broken, so they are unlikely to be eaten by children.

Pepper tree (Schinus molle). The strings of little pink berries hanging on this attractive ornamental tree seem to be moderately poisonous, particularly the seed. Note: the native pepper bush or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) has non-poisonous, but peppery-tasting, orange, fleshy fruiting spikes. Neither species thrives in cold inland areas of both islands.

Persian lilac or white cedar (Melia azedarach). Persian lilac is deciduous and when the leaves fall the bunches of poisonous yellow fruits are very conspicuous. A common street tree in the Auckland and Bay of Plenty areas.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). This plant is a spurge, all species of which are poisonous. The milky sap can burn the delicate lining of the mouth. It is often grown as a pot plant for the Christmas trade and in the warm northern part of the North Island it is a typical garden shrub. See other Euphorbia species under spurges.

Poroporo (Solanum laciniatum or S. aviculare). The poisonous green or yellow berries should not be eaten, although when orange and fully ripe they are scarcely toxic when fresh, and not at all when cooked. The two species of poroporo are very similar and are only easily distinguished by the flowers. For practical purposes the two species can be regarded as one.

Potato (Solanum tuberosum). The parts most likely to poison children are the green or whitish berries produced on some varieties. Potato tubers which are green from light exposure are also poisonous.

Privets (Ligustrum species). All species have poisonous black, blue-black or dark purplish berries, which might be eaten by children. Tree privet (L. lucidum), privet (L. ovalifolium), and most abundantly, Chinese privet (L. sinense), are the usual species from the Waikato and Bay of Plenty northwards. In colder areas southwards the main species are the last two, as well as the abundantly fruiting deciduous common privet, L. vulgare, in the South Island.

Rhododendron species and varieties. The tree-like, pink-flowered Rhododendron arboreum hybrids, common over most of New Zealand, have poisonous flowers, and honey made from them is also toxic. However, all rhododendrons should be regarded as poisonous.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). The leaf blades are poisonous on this common vegetable plant.

Snowberry bush (Symphoricarpos albus). The white marble-sized berries of this deciduous garden shrub are poisonous and are particularly conspicuous after the leaves fall. Mainly grown in colder parts of the country, especially in the South Island. Note: It is not to be confused with the native snowberry (Gaultheria depressa), a prostrate evergreen shrub with similar, but edible, berries.

Spindle Tree (Euonymus europaeus). The pink fruits with their orange seeds are attractive but poisonous, as are all parts of the tree. It is the spindle berries that are most likely to be eaten. Mainly seen south of the Volcanic Plateau in colder areas.

Spurges (Euphorbia species). All species are poisonous [see also 3. skin irritants]. The milky sap can burn the delicate lining of the mouth [see also the unrelated swan plants]. Beware especially of caper spurge (E. lathyris) which should not be confused with the unrelated true edible capers (Capparis spinosa). Note: not all plants with milky sap are poisonous, for example, the unrelated dandelions (Taraxacum species) which are harmless.

Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima). Many irises are poisonous but the main parts likely to be eaten in this species are the prominent orange seeds that are displayed when the fruits open, a feature lacking in other irises.

Swan plants (Gomphocarpus fruticosus and G. physocarpus). These two shrubby plants are so similar that they can be regarded as the same for all practical purposes. Like all members of the asclepias family the tissues are full of poisonous white milky latex, so even the bladder-like fruits should not be eaten.

Taro (Colocasia esculenta). All parts of this popular Polynesian food crop are poisonous, so the root and leaves must be cooked properly before being eaten. Even if eaten when only partly cooked, it will burn the throat. It is a member of the poisonous arum lily family.

Thornapple or datura (Datura stramonium). The black seeds are sometimes eaten and contain a powerful, dangerous drug, as do other parts of the plant. This weed has white trumpet flowers and appears in gardens and waste places in summer. The name thorn apple is sometimes wrongly applied to angel's trumpet, which belongs to the same section of the nightshade family, although it looks quite different.

Tītoki (Alectryon excelsus). The round black seeds in their scarlet cup are a familiar sight in many areas, but especially in the Auckland region and northwards, and this striking colour contrast appeals to all ages. Tītoki is included because of its attractive fruits and the uncertainty as to whether or not they are toxic. It is sensible to avoid it because many members of the soap tree family are poisonous.

Tropical periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus, commonly known as Vinca rosea). An annual with pink or white flowers. Although an important medicinal plant, tropical periwinkle is very poisonous. It is a member of the oleander family that is mainly grown in warm northern areas.

Tūrutu or blueberry lily (Dianella nigra). This native plant in the flax family has attractive violet berries reported as being poisonous. Australian species are sometimes grown, especially in Auckland, and their berries may also be poisonous. Tūrutu grows mainly in parts of the North Island and western and southern parts of the South Island.

Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum). This small shrub is often seen in bush remnants and plantations. Although not as poisonous as some other Hypericum species, such as the well-known St. John's Wort (H. perforatum), the black berries should not be eaten.

Tutu (Coriaria species). All species are very poisonous. The fleshy black berries should be avoided, because the seeds inside them are poisonous. It grows in bush remnants and margins, in scrub, and often in places modified by humans, like plantations. The usual lowland species is C. arborea, and in mountains this species grows with the smaller C. sarmentosa.

White cedar [see Persian lilac]

Winter rose (Helleborus niger). This plant is often grown close to houses in private gardens, and all parts are poisonous.

Wisteria (Wisteria species, usually W. sinensis). This beautiful climber is grown around many houses for its hanging clusters of mauve, or less commonly, white flowers. The pods and seeds of this legume are poisonous, but fortunately they are not nearly as common as the flowers.

Woolly nightshade (Solanum mauritianum). This very familiar shrub or small tree has little globular dull yellow berries. These are probably not as poisonous as in many other Solanum species, but they should not be eaten.

Yew (Taxus baccata). Although nearly all parts are poisonous, only the soft red berry with its poisonous green seed is likely to be eaten by children.

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