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Toxic plants to watch for in Malibu

Carnation spurge, or Euphorbia terracina, can cause rashes, facial swelling, temporary blindness and even anaphylaxis. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
3:00 pm PDT July 21, 2015

It’s like something from a 1950s horror film: An alien invader that spreads everywhere, is almost impossible to eradicate and can cause a severe allergic reaction that includes painful rashes, facial swelling, temporary blindness and in severe cases, anaphylaxis. 

In the race to replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants, some Malibu residents may be overlooking potential hazards.  The symptoms described above can be caused by carnation spurge, or Euphorbia terracina, an ornamental European plant that has escaped from gardens in the Malibu area and established itself as a weed. Unsuspecting gardeners who attempt to uproot the plant and come in contact with the sticky white sap may experience any or all of the symptoms described, but they may also encounter the same problems with more desirable garden specimens of the genus.

The sap of all euphorbias is toxic. Terracina’s cousin Euphorbia tirucalli, better known as the pencil cactus or fire sticks, is popular because of its striking color, attractive growth pattern and drought tolerance, but it can cause severe eye irritation or even permanent blindness, and the sap, or latex, tends to spurt out when the plant is cut or damaged, increasing the risk of eye injury.

Another potential problem plant appearing all over Malibu is sago palm, or king sago. All parts of this palm-like plant are toxic—even the pollen, which reportedly can cause headaches and aggravate asthma, but the real danger is from but the bright orange seeds, which can be deadly to dogs, causing irreversible liver failure. 

The sago isn’t a true palm, it’s a member of an ancient family of early conifers called cycads. Sago palms are the most common garden variety cycad, and one of the leading causes of plant toxin mortality in dogs, according to numerous studies, but almost all members of the cycad family are toxic in varying degrees.

The best way to avoid accidental poisoning is to remove the seed-bearing female cones and pollen-forming male cones removed before they ripen.

Contact with the sharp ends of sago fronds or the spines on the plant’s trunk can cause rashes and infections, so all parts of the plant should be handled with care.

The spines and sap of agaves, one of the most popular plants for drought-tolerant landscaping, can also cause severe rashes and infected wounds. Calcium oxalates raphides, sharp crystals of oxalic acid, are the defense mechanism in the sap that protects these plants from predators. A similar chemical can be found in the sap of the houseplant dieffenbachia.

The most common toxic plant in Malibu is probably the caster bean. Just one seed contains enough toxin to kill a child. Although the caster bean was introduced as an ornamental garden plant, it’s now a fast-growing and difficult to eradicate weed.

Oleander, prized for its colorful flowers and ability to thrive in almost any location, is also highly toxic. Accidental poisoning in humans and pets is reportedly rare because the leaves have a terrible taste. However, horses, goats and llamas are all at risk from this beautiful but deadly plant, and the sap can cause painful rashes and eye irritation. Smoke from burning the wood is also toxic.

UC Davis offers a short but comprehensive list of plants that are toxic to animals: The ASPCA also provides extensive plant toxicity information:

Malibu resident Susan Tellem is a spokesperson for California Poison Control. She’s had firsthand experience with euphoria toxicity. “We had pencil cactuses. My husband got the sap in his eye,” she told the Malibu Surfside News. “We removed [the plants] and have landscaped with natives.”

She recommends Poison Control’s extensive list of toxic plants as a useful reference for Malibu residents:

Clark Stevens, the executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District, also encourages Malibu homeowners to consider native plants, instead of exotics. The agency offers onsite garden consultations, for a small fee. 

“We also have lists of drought tolerant natives and non-natives that aren’t problematic,” Clark told the Malibu Surfside News. 

More information on the RCDSMM’s Keep Your Green program is available at

For big projects, Stevens recommends hiring a landscape architect or horticulturalist who is knowledgable about the local ecology. “In Malibu you have property owners with stewardship of large areas of landscape. We need to get the word out that low water use can be wonderful, magical,” he said. 

Wonderful, magical and, ideally, non toxic.

Planting potentially toxic plants in a place where children and pets won’t come in contact with them, and avoiding spiny or toxic plantings near pathways or high traffic areas, are simple measures to prevent problems. Creating a fenced “safe play space” for pets and children is also an option.

Wearing safety glasses, long sleeves and gloves while trimming plants or weeding, and making sure material like oleander doesn’t end up as firewood or in the compost pile are other ways to prevent problems. 

Immediate medical treatment is recommended for all toxic plant related emergencies. Poison Control can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222.