Toxic landscaping and the ubiquitous Yew

A few years ago we published a case report of a fatal ingestion of the Yew plant in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  It was one of two deaths reported to the Illinois Poison Center (IPC) due to this plant in the 12 years that I have been associated with the Illinois Poison Center.  Since last week’s blog was on poisonous plants, it seems like a good idea to continue that theme as this is a busy time of year for gardening and landscaping.

The yew plant is an attractive evergreen plant commonly used in Illinois for landscaping.  The plant has dark green spiky leaves and pretty red berries.  It can be sculpted into many shapes in order to create visual interest in a garden.

The plant however contains toxic alkaloids called taxines.  These compounds are thought to inhibit sodium channels and calcium channels in heart muscle and presumably in other organs as well.  The blocking of these channels, which are vital to nerve, brain and muscle function leads to a host of potentially fatal effects.  Signs and symptoms occur in 1 to 3 hours after ingestion and may include some of the following:

Gastrointestinal Effects:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

Brain, nerve and muscle Effects:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Muscle weakness
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Coma

Heart Effects:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cardiac arrhythmias (ventricular tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation, 3rd A-V block – these are all bad and no one ever wants this to happen)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Circulatory collapse (shock)

Fortunately, as discussed earlier, poisoning is a matter of dose.  Most people do not eat large enough amounts to cause serious harm unless they are suicidal, suffer from pica, or are developmentally delayed.  Still, the danger does exist in our communities and multiple case reports of fatal and near fatal exposures exist in the medical literature.  This plant is also highly toxic to animals, especially to horses and pets.  So this year – or any year — when you choose your landscaping, choose wisely.

Till next Tuesday,


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  1. Illinois Poison Center Blog » Blog Archive » Watch Out for Those Scary Berries!

    […] I had created and although I was tempted at the time, knowing what I know now about the toxicity of the yew berry, I’m thankful I did […]

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