Never take a plant for granted!
I have gardened for over the past twenty years and thought nothing could surprise me anymore but one chilly April evening that came to a halt with a knock at the back door. I had just finished with supper when I heard the loud knocking at seven o'clock at night. We were early raisers so I wondered who in the world it could be. I opened the back door near my kitchen and there stood my neighbor from a few doors down the neighborhood.
“Can you help me?” He rasped in a scratchy whisper. “I think I need to see a doctor.” He was standing on the porch steps and he was a grayish color and his throat looked all swollen. His thinning grey hair was blowing around in the breeze while one of his gnarled hands was holding his throat.
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed as I helped him into the house. “What has happened to you? You sound terrible.” I had him sit down in a kitchen chair under the lights.
“I was working in the garden and my throat started itching.” He put his hand back up to his Adam’s apple. “I feel like I can't breathe, like something’s stuck in my throat,” he rasped.
I took a flash light and had him open his mouth. His tonsil area was swollen about the size of a quarter and looked like it was swelling even worse. I told him I was taking him to the hospital. I thought he was possibly having an allergic reaction. On the way to the emergency room he told me how he had been working out in his garden when suddenly he couldn't breathe very well.
“What were you doing out in the garden when this first came on?” I asked him.
“I was drinking a cup of coffee and had a cigarette while I was weeding.” He choked the words out.
“What plants were you weeding?” I asked him. I thought maybe he had ingested some plant materials by accident with his coffee or inhaled with the cigarette.
“I was weeding around my monkshood plants up by the house.” He looked out the car window and started coughing. He had a bottle of water with him and tried to drink a little from the bottle as we drove through town.
I pulled into the emergency room parking lot and found a place to park. It was a long way to the door with a man who walked with a cane but he was a proud man and I knew better than to drop him off and then go in after him. We walked into the lobby together and I got him signed in. It was an hour wait to see the doctor on call. Three nasty car accidents had most of the staff tied up and so we waited in the lobby.
Nearly an hour and half later we finally saw the doctor on call and he was not happy about the condition of my friend and neighbor. His throat was swollen almost shut and they were debating on a trach to help him breath. Instead they gave him several shots and started asking him if he'd been bitten by anything, stung by a bee, or had a run-in with ants. Next came the questions of what medications had he taken, what had he eaten or drank that day.
I began to get scared. It certainly looked like he had some kind of bodily reaction to something but even the doctors were having a difficult time getting his reaction under control. They brought in glasses of water for him to drink and started an IV to make sure he didn't dehydrate any further. The first three hours there wasn't much change and so they had him continue drinking water but gave him a pain killer in his IV.
“Can you tell me what you were doing in the garden?” The doctor asked him. “We need to know exactly what you were doing so we can try and figure out what you were exposed to.”
“Well, I was kneeling down in my flower bed in back of the house weeding around some plants.” He told the doctor.
“What kind of plants were you weeding around?” The doctor asked as he listened to his breathing and checked his pulse again.
“It was monkshood.” He said in his raspy voice.
“Monkshood.” The doctor looked up, “How long have you grown it?”
“This is the fourth year at this house. Never had a problem with it before even though you do have to be careful with it.” My neighbor told him.
“What do you mean you have to careful with it?” The doctor asked him.
“Monkshood is highly poisonous. They make heart medication and other drugs out of it.”
“Is that why you were growing it?” The doctor asked him, puzzled. “How dangerous is this plant?”
“It's pretty bad stuff.” My neighbor rasped out in between a few coughs. “Its leaves can give off an oily poison. You have to handle it carefully.”
“Were you wearing gloves or long sleeves when you were working around these plants?” The doctor thought he might have finally found the source of the reaction.
“I was when I started but then I took them off to drink my coffee and smoke a cigarette.” He looked over at me and I was staring at his hands. He had green stains on his skin. He must have forgotten to put them back on.
“I'm going to call the poison hot-line and will be back shortly.” The doctor told us and then made a bee-line for the door. Nearly an hour later he came back and told us that he had gotten some information on the plant monkshood and that my neighbor was lucky to be alive. Monkshood it turned out is a very dangerous, highly toxic plant. If left untreated it could have killed my neighbor by slowly cutting off his airway.
“Can you tell me why you grow such a dangerous plant?” The doctor asked him. “Oh, and I got to see a picture of the plant too, and it's an ugly thing, why would you want to grow it?” He was genuinely confused.
“It has beautiful flowers when it blooms.” My neighbor told him with a grin. “I just like the flowers.”
“Well, do me a favor, will you?” The doctor told my neighbor as he released him to be able to go home. “Find another flower less deadly to enjoy so we don't see you back in here again.”
He turned to me and said, “Miss, don't let him near those plants again. Wear gloves and dig them up and throw them away before we end up with him back here again.”
Until that very night I had always weeded bare handed and never even thought about what could happen if I touched the wrong plant. Mother Nature has her own defenses and sometimes when you take a situation for granted or get careless you can get bit.