Some Plants Aren't Evil, Just Misunderstood

Plants are like Hollywood elite. Some are unfairly maligned, possessing both inner and outer beauty. A few are unsung heroes who create harmony, unfettered by fanfare. Yet others are flashy and beautiful, but their true nature reveals a poisonous core. Unable to hire a public relations firm, plants depend on cultural and natural historians and educated gardeners to set the record straight! Step into a typical Fairfax County backyard and you will likely find several misunderstood plants.

Several of our spring standards prove that looks may deceive. William Wordsworth immortalized daffodils which bloomed in abundance on hillsides. Maybe the poet was unaware that the bulbs of these, as well as narcissus, are toxic if eaten, causing a range of ailments from nausea to diarrhea. Another pretty star is the buttercup. Putting a buttercup under the chin to see if someone likes butter originally had the flower touch the skin. If the skin showed a red patch, then the person liked a little bit of butter on their bread. The chemicals in the flower can cause dermatitis. The problem is worse for grazing animals that can become severely ill from eating fresh buttercups. The chemicals do give the flower a bad taste so animals usually avoid the flower. Tulips combine both issues with a skin irritant plus a toxic bulb which, if eaten, could cause convulsions! Pokeweeds, with their pink-streaked stalk and purple-red berries are a hazard in the yard. Eating a few berries can make a child seriously ill. Most of the plant is toxic, especially upon maturity. Wildlife enjoys the fruit, but then spread the seeds around. Consider removing this plant before the tap root is hard to pull free from the ground, and planting the area with a wildlife and kid-friendly alternative.

Several plants are sold in local nurseries which would be better left on the shelf. English ivy may be synonymous with top notch Ivy League education, but planting English ivy is not a smart choice. English ivy quickly spreads and was often historically chosen for stabilizing soil on a steep hillside. Oftentimes the thick mat of leaves disguise the erosion still occurring under the plants. When ivy grows up trees and buildings, the root hairs wrench their way into their host and can eventually topple the tallest tree and crumble brick and wood. Instead plant ostrich, christmas, new york and other ferns to stabilize a slope. These native plants provide the root system needed to hold soil in place, spread easily and are native to our region. Another must-avoid is porcelain berry, a native of Asia. The lovely shades of blue and purple berries cannot make up for the truth that these bushes spread rapidly and are hard to remove. Birds love the fruit but then spread the low protein seeds far and wide, covering native plants and trees quickly creating a monoculture.

Some plants need the horticultural equivalent of several talk show appearances to share their sides of the story. One group of plants suffering from an undeserved attack on their reputation is the Solidagos, or goldenrods. This common native wildflower is wildly popular with the bees and butterflies, but thought to cause sneezing fits in humans. Many people may suffer from allergies, or hay fever, from ragweed pollen blown around by the wind. However goldenrods’ pollen is sticky and relies on flying insects, not the wind, to travel between plants. Surprisingly poison ivy even has some merit. The potent oil urushiol is present in all parts of the plant and most people, given enough time and exposure, will experience a skin reaction. But the berries of the plant feed over 50 species of native birds and deer will eat its leaves. Whereas poison ivy is native to our area, poison oak is not. There are several species of plants that have leaflets in sets of three, but to be safe, avoid touching them all!

A quiet but common set of heroes in our local woods and backyards are the vibernums. For a hardy plant, this one has it all – beauty of flowers and berries, providing food sources at the right time for local species, ease of growth even in shade, and an abundance of varieties. Some, such as the maple leaf vibernum, hold onto their berries late into fall and early winter providing needed sustenance to overwintering birds and mammals. Some species even have edible berries. If you want a plant for a healthy snack, look no further than the dandelion. All parts of this plant are edible and herbalists consider each part to have a medicinal value. The flowers and young leaves can be eaten raw in a salad. Older greens require cooking and roots require roasting for consumption. Just make sure you select dandelions that have not been sprayed, stomped, or visited by passing pets!

Take a stroll in your backyard and enjoy the blooms. To learn of native alternatives to invasive or alien species, visit and click on “gardening” in the menu box. Scroll through options for trees, bushes and ornamentals that are particularly useful attracting birds and butterflies, are tolerant of shade or just have lovely blooms. As you recognize the plants for what they truly are, a bully or a beauty, you can decide for which you cast your vote for the honor of being invited to live in your backyard.

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