A hobby botanist identifies our beautiful — and deadliest — local flora
There is no scarcity of natural beauty in Los Angeles. Nearly every day, birds of paradise, jasmine, bougainvillea, towering trees and unfurling fringed fronds and creeping tendrils continue to swell and sprout across the city.
Upon closer examination, some of these plants tell a deadlier story. An aggressive thorn from a century plant, a foul odor from a poodle-dog bush, the casualty of poison oak and foxglove; are all proof of Southern California plant’s will to survive and thrive at any cost. Sometimes, that cost is a lethal one.
When you’re out in the city watch where you step, what’s burning and especially what you (and your furry companions) eat with this primer on poisonous plants in Los Angeles.
Don’t be fooled by little ol’ Lantana! These innocent-seeming, multicolored-blossoms can be a little, well, shady. Native to tropical regions of the Americas, Lantana’s sweet-smelling flower clusters — called umbels — can be found in bunches all over the Los Angeles area, and are in fact an aggressively invasive species.
The toxic property in Lantana is triterpene, a self-defense mechanism that tastes bitter when ingested, and in large quantities can kill pets and make humans seriously ill. Fair warning: Lantana is at its most poisonous when growing wild — which in L.A. is generally its natural habitat.
The mothership of toxic flora is the majestic Brugmansia, which blooms floppy, pleated tangerine-colored blooms inspiring its common name, “angel’s trumpet.”
Be warned: these pungent plants are no angels. First classified in 1753, they were native to tropical regions of South America, but quickly went extinct in the wild. The seven primary species remain in cultivation all over Los Angeles, draping over chain link fences and trellises among the very creatures they could easily kill.
Their high levels of toxicity, especially concentrated in their leaves and seeds, make them an odd choice for local landscaping — and drug use. Inexplicably, there seemed to be a resurgence of recreational Brugmansia use in the early 2000s, most notably culminating in rumors of a German teen cutting off his penis and tongue with garden shears after ingesting a tea brewed from the plant.
Don’t get it twisted, this agave isn’t the tequila kind, it’s purely ornamental (I’m as sad as you are). Naturalized all over the world for its drought-resistance and sturdy, handsome leaves, the Agave americana blooms only once at the very end of its life. It sprouts a thick, asparagus-like stalk with little yellow bulbs signifying the century plant’s swan song.
You can’t go a block without spotting one of these green plants, but dog owners beware — squirrels and other desert creatures will hide in Agave americana’s leaf shelves, prompting ingestion, and very often death by a pursuant dog, snake or coyote.
Pacific Poison Oak
When “toxic” is in the name, you know it’s bad. This difficult-to-recognize tree grows almost entirely in the state of California and was especially dangerous during fires in Malibu, Griffith Park and Thousand Oaks. Its leaves, vines and roots all have a surface oil which — ignited or not — causes an allergic reaction to the touch. When burned, however, Pacific poison oak’s allergic properties are amplified on its surface and in smoke and can cause inflammation, itching and burning of the skin. Not fun.
If you like skin (having it, keeping it and the like) don’t mess with the seductive purple flowers of the Eriodictyon parryi. Endemic to Southern California, this plant isn’t grown in gardens, but hides in high-sloped plains areas, particularly thriving around fires and landslides.
Look out for it while on a hike because the pretty member of the forget-me-not family is a lot like poison oak when touched. It’s said that topical anesthetics and soaps can worsen the painful, burning blisters, hives, swelling and rashes caused by the oil secreted by the plant. And yes, it can get worse if you’re exposed more than once in the same area.
This hearty shrub dapples our coastlines and freeways, blooming in all colors, yet despite its dainty-looking buds oleander is one of the most deadly plants in the world. Chock-full of glycosides, accidental ingestion can cause cardiac arrhythmias and death, even in as small a dosage as one leaf. Most deaths caused by this plant are self-inflicted, save a famous case of two malnourished vegan hikers who got lost and ingested a fatal oleander salad.
While parts of this gorgeous, purple-hued plant are used to produce treatments for heart failure, the effects of foxglove can quickly yield opposite results. Wild and domestic Digitalis purpurea have an extreme toxicity level and have caused deaths in children and adults who dare ingest its bell-shaped bud, either raw, in tea or otherwise.
In other words, don’t add this pretty Southern California plant into your English breakfast, or it might be your last.