No Plant is Completely Pet Safe

catmint (Nepeta faassenii)

I recently received an email asking me to address the pet safety of plants discussed in this column.  It is easy to comply with this request since no plant is completely pet safe.  While it is highly unlikely that a pet will die from consumption of the leaves or flowers of most plants, an upset pet stomach often accompanies such consumption.  And if the leaves and flowers of a certain plant species are truly pet safe, then it is likely that either the bulbs, the bark, or the roots of such a plant will be somewhat toxic.

If you have a pet, you know that the beloved creature in your life, when it comes to eating, has few boundaries, regarding both the type of item and the quantity of the item consumed.  As a rule, I would remove anything from a pet’s mouth that was not put into its feeding bowl.
Let’s take the simple case of cats and roses.  While rose petals never killed a cat, unbridled ingestion of these silky floral appendages by your feline companion will result in vomiting or diarrhea.  Even the thorns of roses are sometimes chewed and swallowed by cats, resulting in severe intestinal damage.   It is advised that, if you have a cat, you should remove the thorns from your bouquet of roses before putting them in a vase.
Two other popular flowers for vase arrangements, carnations and chrysanthemums, are toxic to dogs and cats.  In addition to the upset stomach symptoms mentioned above, eating these flowers may lead to skin irritation, drooling, and disorientation.  Other toxicity symptoms include dehydration, excessive urination, and loss of appetite.
Lilies are dangerously poisonous where cats are concerned and consumption of just two leaves may lead to death.  All lily foliage, from that of Easter lilies to tiger lilies (Lilium spp.), to that of daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), too, is equally hazardous to cats.
Where cats are concerned, the safest plants are those with a strong foliar pungency, such as rosemary, lemon balm, and lavender.  Cats tend to avoid these although they do like rolling around in catnip and catmint, despite having no interest in chewing on these odoriferous ground covers.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) stimulates cats far more than catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), but catnip is rarely seen in local nurseries because its flowers are nondescript whereas the lavender blue floral display of catmint can be spectacular.  The effect of catnip on cats is that of a pheremone or scented sex hormone secreted by a potential mate.  The reaction of cats, once they have sniffed the herb, is similar to what is witnessed when a female cat or queen is in heat.
“They may rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize and salivate. This response lasts for about 10 minutes, after which the cat becomes temporarily immune to catnip’s effects for roughly 30 minutes. Response to catnip is hereditary; about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibit this behavior in the plant’s presence. In addition, catnip does not affect kittens until they are about six months old and begin to reach sexual maturity,”  as reported in the May 29, 2007, issue of Scientific American.
Certain bulbs, some of which you may have planted this fall, can have lethal effects if eaten by cats or dogs since alkaloids and other toxins are highly concentrated in the tissues of these underground vegetative structures.  Poisonous bulbs include tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, narcissus, lilies, and crocuses.  If you see your pet digging in the ground where bulbs have been planted, shoo the animal away.
Organic fertilizers are not necessarily pet friendly either.  Blood meal can negatively affect your pet’s pancreas while over consumption of bone meal, which is especially appetizing to dogs, may cause blockage in the digestive tract, necessitating surgery, in some cases.

edible petal confetti cake decoration, photo courtesy Maddocks Farm Organics

The same flowers that are toxic to pets are edible for us.  Roses, chrysanthemums and carnations serve a variety of culinary purposes, and all parts of the daylily (Hemerocallis species) may be eaten by you and I.  Of course, there is nothing that is 100% non-allergenic or non-toxic to everyone and there are bound to be a few people who would have an adverse reaction to eating the flowers of any given species among those listed as edible.  Incidentally, Easter lilies and others of the genus Lilium are just as dangerous to us as they are to pets.

Getting back to daylilies, which are Chinese in origin, they are widely considered to be the most tasty of all ornamental plants, which is nice to know considering how easy daylilies are to grow.  Plant them in full to half-day sun and just forget about them.  In the course of time, they will spread out and completely cover any slope or open space.  They can survive on very little water but will positively flourish with a couple of good soakings per week.  Daylilies adapt to a wide variety of soil types and will survive winter cold down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Seldom, if ever, will you find daylilies at the nursery.  This is due to the fact that, as their name implies, each flower lasts only one day so they may be out of bloom at any given moment and nurseries are disinclined to stock flowerless plants that are grown for their flowers.  However, there are many online daylily vendors that grow dozens of daylily varieties from which to choose.  While there are a large number exotic daylilies, often with fascinating petal colors and patterns, I would stay with the traditional orange (hemerocallis fulva) and yellows for rapid expansion of your daylily clumps and a heavy flower show at least twice a year, in spring and fall, although flowers may be seen in any season.  In all but eight states, including California, daylilies have achieved weed status.  Here, however, they are not considered invasive.  When daylily flowers fade, cut the entire clump down to the ground and fresh shoots should begin to grow again within two weeks.

unopened daylily flower buds make a tasty side dish

Tip of the Week:  On, Hank Shaw described the taste of unopened daylily flower buds, cooked with butter and salt, as “a whiff of radish with a dash of green bean.  Honestly,” Shaw confessed, “I’d eat this as a side dish any day, any place.  It needs nothing else.”  As for daylily tubers, “I did the same treatment,” Shaw reported.  “Butter, salt, saute.  Only I added some black pepper this time.”  After sampling this dish, Shaw enthused that “these are quite possibly the best tubers I’ve ever eaten, including real potatoes.”

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