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Eat Plants With Caution : Lists of Toxic Varieties in Disagreement

July 24, 1986

A pamphlet called "Take Care With Plants" from the regional poison center at UC Irvine Medical Center lists plants that are toxic or possibly toxic. The pamphlet is available by writing to the University of California Irvine Medical Center, 101 The City Drive, Route 78, Orange 92668.

Among the plants listed are the geranium (California and Pelargonium species), chrysanthemum and pansy (tricolor variety). According to the pamphlet, California geraniums may be toxic, damaging stomach, heart, kidneys or other organs while the sap of the Pelargonium may produce a skin rash. Certain chrysanthemum species may have toxic and dermatological effects, and tricolor pansies may cause dermatitis.

This list contradicts "AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants" (Chicago Review Press) and other lists, in which those plants mentioned above are not listed among the toxic varieties, according to David Lofgren, plant specialist at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. "Many lists add a large range of plants to widen the margin of assured public safety, and not necessarily because they are actually toxic," said Lofgren. Many plants, Lofgren added, are toxic when consumed in large amounts, whereas others are toxic until boiled--tapioca, for example.

According to John Bleck, staff research associate, horticulture department, UC Santa Barbara, many lists may refer to entire plants, not necessarily the flowers alone. "Many plant species may include varieties which on one end of the scale are perfectly safe to eat, while on the other end, include plants which may be toxic," said Bleck.

Also, some individuals may exhibit sensitivities to certain plants that are otherwise considered safe, such as the common chrysanthemum, which may cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals who handle the plant.

In a July 10 story in the Food Section on edible flowers, the geraniums, pansies and chrysanthemums listed were marketed varieties deemed safe to eat, according to Jay North, owner of Paradise Farms, Summerland. North and his wife grow Chinese chrysanthemums, scented geranium varieties and other edible plants.

However, no flowers should be treated with pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals before eating. Florist crops, routinely treated with systemic insecticides, are not designated for use on edible crops and should not be eaten, according to Jim Bauml, plant taxonomist at the Arboretum.

According to the experts, it's best to use only flowers marketed for edibility or those whose identity is absolutely determined as safe. If in doubt about a plant's safety, don't eat it.

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