FORT LAUDERDALE — A decorative plant found on highway medians in South Florida contains chemicals that can stop your heart. A bush with flamboyantly drooping flowers serves as a cheap hallucinogen for teenagers, who then wind up on ventilators. The sap of a tree that grows along beaches causes painful blisters that discharge liquid that forms more blisters.
The dazzling foliage of South Florida, both natural and landscaped, contains dozens of species that can hurt you. With its warm year-round climate (the last couple of weeks being the exception), South Florida provides a welcoming home to a vast variety of plants containing substances that can irritate skin, damage eyes, slow the pulse, initiate seizures and cause organ failure.
"I'm certain we're No. 1 in the nation," said Roger Hammer, a naturalist who has written books on the plants of Florida. "We get all the rainfall, we get all the sunshine, and we can grow truly tropical plants in South Florida. And there are definitely more tropical plants that are poisonous."
Last year, 616 cases of plant poisonings were reported in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Lee, Collier and Monroe counties, according to the Florida Poison Information Network. Many of these plants are also found in other parts of the state, including the Tampa Bay area.
In the 10 years through 2008, the last year for which national statistics are available, poisonous plants accounted for 27 deaths in the United States, and poisonous mushrooms accounted for 32 deaths.
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So who would consume leaves, stems and seeds from strange plants around the garden and living room? Children under 6, teenagers trying to get high and a few unlucky or not particularly quick-witted adults.
Dr. David Bohorquez, who has worked in emergency rooms in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, recalls one man who came for treatment after eating a mushroom from his lawn.
"He saw it on the ground and thought it looked good and ate it," said Bohorquez, now medical director of the emergency department at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach. "He had horribly bad gastritis. Vomiting. Burst capillaries on his face from throwing up. Good thing he didn't die."
An extremely hazardous plant called angel's trumpet, which thrives in South Florida, has become known as an inexpensive way to obtain the effects of LSD.
In one case, a teenager was brought into the emergency room suffering from seizures, fever and violent hallucinations.
"We had to tie him down," Bohorquez said. "Initially, I thought he was a psych patient. We got blood and tox screens back and everything was okay. Then someone came in and told us he had messed around with angel's trumpet."
The teen had drunk two glasses of tea made from the plant's leaves. He ended up on a ventilator. "We basically gave him supportive care through three days of hell," Bohorquez said, who has seen two other cases of angel's trumpet poisonings since that case five years ago.
Native to South America, angel's trumpets are found widely in the United States but die when the weather turns cold. In South Florida, however, angel's trumpets live for years, allowing their toxins to become more concentrated, said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center-Miami. Last year, there were 21 cases of angel's trumpet poisonings reported in South Florida.
"It is not a good high," he said. "There's usually one death a year nationally, and that's usually in Florida."
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Another dangerous but common plant is the oleander, a native of the Mediterranean basin. Despite its dangers, oleander has become popular in Florida and other Sunbelt states as a cheap and durable plant for landscaping roads and public buildings.
"I can't believe that oleander is so widespread around elementary schools and playgrounds," said Hammer. "You're just asking for it. I'm surprised there aren't more children getting poisoned by those plants."
Of the 63,362 plant poisonings reported in the United States in 2008, 68 percent involved children under the age of 6, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Toddlers seem particularly attracted to waxy flowers, said John Pipoly, urban horticulture agent for the University of Florida-Broward County Extension, who helps doctors identify plants involved in poisoning cases.
"On several occasions, I've been e-mailed pictures of flowers that kids have swallowed," he said. "They had a toddler in the ER who had eaten like 10 allamanda flowers. I told them what it was, and they knew what to do, and they administered an antidote and the kid was fine."
Particularly widespread are poisonings from houseplants called oxalates, which contain crystals that explode into the child's mouth like shards of glass, causing intense pain, swelling and difficulty speaking.
These plants include arrowhead, caladium, dieffenbachia, elephant ear, peace lily, philodendron and pothos. Last year, there were 403 oxalate poisonings reported statewide.