Common Care Questions

What is Plant Toxicity?

Let’s take a look at the fascinating way plants protect themselves from being eaten.

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Plant toxicity is a naturally occurring chemical process of a plant defending itself against being eaten (herbivory).

To defend themselves against herbivory, most plants create or secrete secondary plant metabolites. This is a primarily successful process—plants have been doing it for millions of years! For example, the poisonous sap from a rubber tree protects it from many herbivores.

Some metabolites are irritating but not fatal. For example, aroids like the Pothos create crystal raphides which are physical irritants but are by no means fatal. Raw succulent juices are not fatal either but can induce vomiting. And limonene is the compound that gives lemons their citrus scent, and while fatally repellent to moths, it is pleasing to humans.

A plant’s toxicity can make us sick or worse—but only if consumed. As long as you are not chewing on your houseplants, you’ll be okay sharing your space with them. But what about your curious pets?

Check out the recent Redfin article we were featured in: A Guide to Pet-Safe Plants: Decorate Your Apartment or House Without Worry

Pets and plants are excellent additions to any home—they can provide companionship, relieve stress, and create beauty in your home. Unfortunately, the two don’t always live in harmony, as many plants are poisonous to pets. And unlike with humans, it’s a little harder to communicate that to our curious four-legged friends.

Although it’s not fun to think about, learning about pet-poisonous and pet-safe plants before you get a pet is important. Otherwise, you may come home to your cat eating mint or parsley without knowing they’re poisonous.

Cats and dogs are different animals but tend to chew on plants for similar reasons. Most of the time, it is because they are bored or under-stimulated. We recommend bringing home a new pet toy when you bring home a new plant to help sway their attention, or placing new plants up high out of their reach. Some pets will not be interested in your plants at all, but others will be.

If you're looking for a new pet-safe plant, you can check out ASPCA’s list, or go with one of our recommendations below.

Parlor Palm
The Parlor Palm’s easy-going nature and tropical feel make it a popular houseplant. In fact, it has been cultivated since the Victorian era for its resilience to indoor conditions and vertical growth habit.

Xerographica Air Plant
If your four-legged friend likes to dig in the dirt (or potting mix), skip the mess and try an air plant. This epiphytic plant is like a living sculpture for your space, no planter or potting required.

Calathea Rattlesnake
Also called a prayer plant, the Calathea Rattlesnake raises and lowers its leaves from day to night, a phenomenon called nyctinasty (check out a time-lapse here). Despite its name, it won't bite back if munched on.

Calathea Makoyana
Another popular variety of Calathea, the Makoyana is affectionately called the peacock plant because of its long wavy green leaves with deep green brushstroke pattern and deep purple underside.

Discover more pet-safe houseplants here.

Words By The Sill

Empowering all people to be plant people—a collection of articles from The Sill’s team of plant experts across a variety of plant care topics to inspire confidence in the next generation of plant parents. Welcome to Plant Parenthood™.

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