The combination of hardiness and the unmistakable leaf pattern of Dieffenbachia has made it a popular and attractive houseplant. Although it has many excellent attributes, one aspect of this ornamental plant makes it less appealing for homes with small children and pets.
Dieffenbachia is poisonous, and common symptoms of ingestion are numbness of the throat and vocal cords. The plant, also called Leopard Lily or Dumb Cane, contains toxic oxalate crystals called raphides, which, although rarely fatal, result in a range of unpleasant symptoms for humans and pets.
You may wonder how a poisonous plant has become such a popular houseplant and how to manage its effects if you notice that a pet or child has taken a bite.
Let’s find out more about the plant and what to do in an emergency.
Is Dieffenbachia Poisonous?
Dieffenbachia is native to tropical regions of the New World, which include Mexico, Argentina, and the West Indies. The striking green and white contrasting colors on the leaves and its almost supernatural ability to thrive in shaded conditions have made it an extremely popular houseplant.
Many plant owners don’t recognize the plant by its scientific name. There are different varieties of Dieffenbachia, which all share similar characteristics, so names tend to describe the species rather than the specific type. It is often called Leopard Lily, Mother-In-Laws Tongue, or Dumb Cane.
Unfortunately, Dieffenbachia wasn’t called Dumb Cane because it is easy to grow. This very popular and striking houseplant earned this rather dubious nickname when it was noted that a common symptom of poisoning is that it renders the victim unable to speak, i.e., they become dumb.
Symptoms from chewing and ingesting Dieffenbachia are unfortunately not only limited to temporary numbness of the throat. A range of unpleasant effects can include redness, drooling, swelling, and a burning sensation in the mouth and throat are common.
In addition, contact with Dieffenbachia sap can result in skin irritation and, in rare cases, edema. Therefore, it is critical to always wash your hands thoroughly after pruning the plant.
Dieffenbachia is good to look at but not to touch and most definitely never to taste! This is because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals called raphides. These crystals are shaped like tiny needles, which, as you can imagine, are not easy on the palette.
The sharp crystal raphides are present in all parts of the plant. They release Proteolytic enzymes that exacerbate the uncomfortable symptoms, including swelling and difficulty breathing. So first, the sharp crystals cut victims’ sensitive tissue, and then the body releases an immune response which causes the swelling.
There is an urban legend that Dieffenbachia is deadly. However, this probably started as a way for parents to warn their children not to touch the plant. Although the plant is toxic and has unpleasant effects, ingesting small bits is seldom life-threatening.
Why Does Dieffenbachia Poison Burn?
The structure of the toxic molecules in Dieffenbachia causes a burning sensation from the moment they are touched. Even just getting the sap on your skin can cause irritation and discomfort.
One theory is that the plant evolved this immediate burning defense in its natural habitat to prevent being eaten by grazing animals. Most animals may have a quick nibble, but they certainly couldn’t go back for seconds!
According to ScienceDirect, the intense burning experienced, especially when ingested, is caused by exposure of the poison to moisture in the form of saliva. The sharp raphides are usually encased inside protective cells, but the moment the gelatinous material of the cell swells, the needle-shaped raphides shoot out.
The sharp crystal penetrates the tongue, throat, and oral mucosa. So the damage is not only chemical like you would expect from poisons; it is also mechanical as these tiny dagger-like particles continue to wreak painful havoc on the victim.
In addition to the stabbing action of the raphides, the release of Proteolytic enzymes often stimulates the release of histamines. This causes swelling, which aggravates the mechanical damage caused by the calcium oxalate crystals.
The typical loss of speech associated with severe Dieffenbachia poisoning results from the mechanical damage caused by the sharp raphides and resulting swelling of the throat and tongue.
What to Do If You Have Been Poisoned with Dieffenbachia
Whether you just got some of the stinging sap on your hands while gardening or a child has had a taste of the toxic leaves, it’s going to hurt. The needle-like raphides cause immediate irritation, and the child may start crying as the area will burn, or you may observe drooling and gagging.
Let’s go through a list of what to do if you, or someone else, is exposed to Dieffenbachia sap.
- Remain calm and reassure yourself and the patient that although it is highly uncomfortable and may burn, Dieffenbachia poisoning is not life-threatening.
- Note the location of the pain – is it sap on the skin or eyes, or have some leaves been ingested?
If the plant is in the mouth or has been swallowed:
- If there has been a significant amount of plant material ingested or the plant sap has been rubbed into the eyes, contact poison control for further instructions. Call 1-800-222-1222. There is also an online Poison Control tool, but if there has been significant contact or ingestion of Dieffenbachia, get medical assistance immediately.
- If only a tiny amount has been nibbled, the most common symptom is burning and pain. In mild cases, sucking on ice chips or cold treats can offer some relief.
- If the victim has any difficulty breathing or swallowing, call 911 immediately.
If sap from Dieffenbachia is in your eyes:
- Rinse your eyes with clean water for a minimum of 15 minutes
- If any symptoms like irritation continue, seek medical attention.
Contact with Dieffenbachia sap on skin
- Wash the area using soap and water for at least 15 minutes.
If symptoms of Dieffenbachia poisoning do not improve or if they are severe, it is essential to seek medical treatment. Contact with the eyes is particularly painful and may become severe because the sharp shape of the oxalate crystals can lead to corneal abrasions.
Fortunately, while Dieffenbachia poisoning can cause unpleasant symptoms, these are usually temporary and can be successfully treated. Supportive treatments to soothe the tiny oral abrasions include eating yogurt or sucking some ice.
Swelling may need to be treated with an antihistamine. Your health care worker may also suggest taking a protectant like pectin to reduce possible gastrointestinal irritation.
Why Does Dieffenbachia Contain Poisons?
It may seem peculiar to find a common houseplant that packs such a punch in terms of harmful side effects if ingested. The presence of the needle-like raphide molecules contained in Dieffenbachia leaves is an evolutionary defense mechanism against plant predators.
So instead of becoming a delicious snack for a hungry tropical herbivore, the immediate burning sensation in the mouth and throat is usually enough to dissuade sampling more than a small bite.
Raphides are more densely concentrated on these tropical plants across the surface of the leaves and stem, which are the most likely sections to be grazed in a natural setting.
Is Dieffenbachia Toxic to Pets?
Dieffenbachia is poisonous to anyone who chews on its leaves or stems, including animals. Fortunately, the instant burning sensation usually puts them off eating too much, but pet owners need to remain alert for symptoms that their pets may have eaten bits of this toxic plant.
Playful puppies and curious cats are often victims of Dieffenbachia poisoning. However, even pet birds like parrots and budgies have suffered the ill effects of taking a bite.
It is essential that owners immediately consult a veterinarian if they suspect their pet has nibbled on a Dieffenbachia plant. Although the effects are rarely fatal, they are painful and unpleasant.
Let’s look at the symptoms of chewing or ingesting Dieffenbachia leaves in three common household pets.
|Drooling||Drooling||Severe mouth irritation|
|Intense burning||Oral pain||Swelling of the tongue|
|Vomiting||Swelling of the mouth||Swelling of the crop|
|Difficulty swallowing||Difficulty swallowing||Possible difficulty breathing|
|Swelling of the mouth and tongue||May experience difficulty breathing||Difficulty eating|
The ASPCA has a handy list of common houseplants and possible toxic effects on pets. Pet owners should consult the list before selecting plants that their pets may have contact with.
If your pet has chewed a bit off a Dieffenbachia plant, it will probably need an antihistamine and some pain relief.
Besides the immediate swelling of the mouth and throat from the stinging effect associated with the needle-like raphides, further gastric discomfort is likely to result as the toxin works its way through the animal’s system.
Why Do Cats Eat Houseplants?
Cats are usually pretty picky eaters, and most owners know the challenge of trying to keep our feline friends happy in terms of their favorite flavors or brands. Therefore, it can be unexpected and quite confusing when a cat starts munching on indoor plants.
Cats of all types, including lions, tigers, and housecats, are obligate carnivores. That means that, unlike many other animals, their survival depends on eating meat.
According to vets on Vetstreet, plant-eating is extremely common in cats, although the reasons are not entirely understood.
Indoor pets often nibble on any available plants because they would naturally chew on blades of grass or other non-toxic leaves. Since they have limited choices indoors, they can get into trouble if they choose a poisonous plant like Dieffenbachia to chew on.
While it is essential to keep all poisonous houseplants out of your pet’s reach, indoor cat owners should consider growing an edible pet grass patch which will be a safe option for cats who love nibbling greens.
Can Dieffenbachia Cause Skin Rash?
The substance in Dieffenbachia plants that make it toxic is called calcium oxalate. Raphides describe the form taken by the oxalates. They are sharp, needle-like structures that can cause skin irritation or a slight rash.
While contact with the skin on your hands and fingers may result in nothing more than a slight tingling or burning sensation, it is essential to avoid touching your lips or eyes if you have any sap on your hands.
The needle-sharp raphides can irritate and even cause mechanical damage to the sensitive cornea. Inflammation, edema, and ulceration of the lips have been reported in adults who touched their mouth with Dieffenbachia sap on their fingers.
When pruning or handling Dieffenbachia is recommended to wear gloves so that contact with skin is avoided. If you get plant sap on your skin, wash the area for at least 15 minutes using soap and water.
Are All Dieffenbachia Poisonous?
Although all varieties of Dieffenbachia are poisonous and have a reputation for having unpleasant side effects, they are attractive and popular ornamental plants. If handled cautiously, they can be lovely additions to a setting.
Because of its unusual appearance and hardiness, Dieffenbachia is a popular choice in office settings.
When shopping for plants, you are likely to notice Dieffenbachia immediately. It is unusual, attractive, and offers texture and a hint of exotic appeal. However, always remember that all varieties are poisonous.
Dieffenbachia is a popular ornamental houseplant because of its big showy leaves, which feature shades of green, white and yellow. In addition, it is hardy and tolerant of shaded indoor areas.
An excellent option for homeowners who have pets or young children is to choose an artificial Dieffenbachia. These distinctive-looking plants are readily available and can look completely realistic – that way, you get all the good looks of this tropical plant without worrying about curious kids or pets.
Can I Plant Dieffenbachia With Other Plants?
Dieffenbachia looks excellent on its own or grouped in a container with other low-light plants like Pothos or Philodendron. The mottled leaves of Dieffenbachia provide an interesting textured look when grouped with different types of plants.
Dieffenbachia is an easy-care, no-fuss plant that can be used as a stand-alone feature plant or grouped with other plants. They do well in indoor temperatures between 60F and 70F and can thrive in low natural light or fluorescent lighting, making them ideal for offices.
Dieffenbachia should be used with caution in settings with young children or pets. All parts of the plant are poisonous, although fortunately, the effects are not life-threatening.
While the effects of Dieffenbachia poisoning are usually temporary, it is essential to get medical advice and assess each case individually. Poison Control can be contacted at 1-800-222-1222 and is available to assist 24 hours a day.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.