Q.: What plants should I avoid because they are toxic to animals? Are there any plants that I can safely use near my barn that are both non-toxic to horses and also non-delicious to horses?
A.: This is one of those questions that have so many variables; we could go on all day about it and not really answer the question to anyone’s satisfaction. What plants are toxic? Pretty much all of them, if enough is ingested. Even too many apples will give you a tummy ache, and those are supposed to be really good for us! Some plants, though, just take a little bite to do a lot of damage, from nausea and digestive upsets to headaches, fever and even fatality.
Many toxic plants have a bitter taste, which keeps our pets from eating them, especially a well-fed dog or cat. Some have thorns, like roses, or prickly leaves, as American holly does, which deter nibblers.
A few examples from the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension will show you how comprehensive a list the toxic plant world contains. Just in our home landscapes, the list includes: azalea, amaryllis, arborvitae, barberry, buckeye, calla lily, cherry, clematis, crinum lily, elderberry, elephant ear, English ivy, four-o-clocks, holly, honeysuckle, hydrangea, impatiens, iris, juniper, lantana, mimosa, oleander, nicotiana, privet, Virginia creeper, wisteria and yew.
That’s just the common species that we all recognize by name. There are hundreds and hundreds more on these websites – dare you grow anything in your yard except Bermuda grass? Well, come to find out, in June this year, 15 cattle died in Texas from eating Tifton 85 Bermuda grass due to a “perfect storm” of conditions that caused a build up of prussic acid, or cyanide, in the grass blades. Of course, this is not common, and the circumstances that caused the build up were unusual. The toxins generally dissipate naturally, and cattle graze on Tifton 85 all the time with no ill effects, but it happened.
My point is, you can’t avoid every poisonous plant in your yard – you’d just have red clay. Be proactive, though. Teach your children never, ever to put plant parts in their mouths. If your dog is a chewer of every plant it sees, the safest thing to do is to fence off a portion of the yard just for the dog, and remove the ornamentals from the area. Keep your cats indoors (unless you have barn cats, in which case they’re on their own in the diet department anyway).
There are a few particularly nasty plants that you must avoid near your horses, including bracken fern, locoweed, oleander, red maple, water hemlock and yew. Even well-fed horses will nibble on whatever green is growing nearby, including thorny roses and prickly holly bushes. One source suggested planting the ornamentals on the far side of the dung pile (that the horses would avoid that area), but then you’d have to deal with the doo between you and the flowers, too.
A few resources for lists of poisonous plants in Georgia can be found online. For a list of native and naturalized plants in our state, go to UGA’s Poisonous Plant of Georgia website: www.plantbio.uga.edu/PPG/.
To learn about toxic plants in the landscape, which includes many of our ornamental flowers and shrubs, look at the Georgia Poison Center’s site: www.georgiapoisoncenter.org/poisons/poisonous-plants.
And specifically for horse owners, I found this list on Equisearch.com: www.equisearch.com/horses_care/nutrition/feeds/poisonousplants_041105.