Plants, Poisons, and the Future of Life on Earth


The dreaded oleander

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed an episode of child abuse.

Now you may disagree and yes, the term I’m using is  inflammatory. What I saw comes under no government’s  statutes of mistreatment and may, in fact, be seen as  reasonable and rational child protection by some. Let me  explain.

We were wandering around the seaside town in which we live, and stumbled upon a cafe and playground in the shadow of the stone ramparts of the old medieval city. It was ridiculously picturesque, and we stopped to have a coffee and to let the kids romp. On our way out, as our boys scaled slanted stone walls in dubious safety, I saw another family just leaving.

The parents were occupied with the baby in the stroller, so it was up to the grandmother to save their curious 4 or 5-year old from potentially deadly contagion.

The boy had stopped and was pulling on the leaves of a shrub. An oleander, in fact, purposefully planted and completely non-toxic. The grandmother grabbed the boy and yanked him away. I assumed it was because she didn’t wish him to harm the harmless and clearly defenseless bush. I was wrong.

She called out to the boy’s mother, who immediately dug into her bag and produced a foil-wrapped and hermetically-sealed anti-bacterial wipe, which the grandmother then applied vigorously to the boy’s hands, tsk-tsk-ing the while.

(If, like so many of her litterbug compatriots clearly do, she had thrown the wipe on the ground, I probably would have launched a verbal broadside at the poor woman which would have made the angels weep and truckers blush. Fortunately for both of us, she did not.)

Touching (gasp) a seed ball from a plane tree

Drop the seed ball and back away, kid

So what did this act of hers plant in the mind of this impressionable child? Leaves are bad. Shrubs are bad. Evil freaking shrubs. Whether city-grown or wild, plants hurt you. The natural world is dirty and dangerous.

The US Department for Children And Families (DCF) defines child abuse as “any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.” 

Here is a brief list of some of the potential dangers of NOT engaging in the natural world:

By helping to instill in this young boy a perhaps life-long aversion to nature, was it exposing him to the “potential for harm”? It would seem so. A lot of harm. But was it child abuse?

Well, I must begrudgingly admit, not really. ‘Abuse’ implies malice or at least willful neglect, and I’m sure Grandma bore the boy no malice and she certainly wasn’t being neglectful – on the contrary, she was right there to yank him from the bush and douse him with antibiotics.

Checking out a baby gecko

Checking out a baby gecko

Now I obviously don’t know the whole story. Perhaps the boy has a deadly allergy to all forms of vegetation. Perhaps he was soon to engage in some particular religious rite which required that his hands be unbefouled by leaf juice. Anything’s possible, I suppose. But what I think is simply that the grandmother, and the mother, felt that shrubbery (and by extension thus all of the natural world) was something dirty and unwholesome that children needed protection from.

I find that problematic. First of all, it’s bullshit. Secondly, as outlined above, being engaged in the natural world is actually incredibly good for you, and disengaging from it holds serious negative consequences. Thirdly, we are currently undergoing climate change and environmental destruction at an unprecedented pace, and it may be up to this boy’s generation to save us all from the devastation that ours and previous generations have wrought. What are the chances that they will succeed if we keep teaching our kids that nature is filthy and fraught with danger?

Picnic lunch. No wipes.

Picnic lunch. No wipes.

Anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time will know how important I feel it is that we impart a sense of love and stewardship in our children for the natural world, and you may have even read a post or two that outlined this belief.

But lest you think that I’m some kind of long-haired hippie-type pinko treehugger ecoterrorist freak, let me share with you the following anecdote. Last weekend we went hiking and came upon a gaggle of folks in the forest, beating tom-toms, chanting, holding hands and, ultimately, howling like wolves. They didn’t evoke in me a desire to join them in swaying like trees in the wind in order to worship mama Gaia – they just creeped me out. I think they could have better demonstrated their oneness with the great mother goddess by bringing some garbage bags and clearing litter.

But let’s leave these all-natural-fiber-clad folks howling in the wind, and get back to our kids. The hygenically-minded grandmother is, I’m sure, a wonderful lady. And the mother with the bag full of antibiotics? She’s only looking out for what she sees as the best interests of her child. But as I wrote in ‘Let Them Eat Dirt,’ our modern mania for immaculate children is having pernicious health consequences. I would go further, and say that it’s also having unhealthy psychological and societal consequences.

Touching a tree, then touching your face, isn't, in fact, deadly.

Touching a tree, then touching your face, isn’t, in fact, deadly.

With or without climate change, we’re going to be facing extreme environmental pressures in the decades to come. Even as we’re pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we’re losing at an alarming rate the forests that remove and store it (about half a percent per year, or 5% per decade just for tropical forests), and the dead zones at our river deltas are growing, just when we need handy oceanic phyoplankton to convert CO2 into carbohydrates.

Difficult choices will have to be made, economies will have to adapt, and strong leadership will have to emerge. If we teach our children, consciously or unconsciously, that the natural world is a world of dangers and that the only safe place is indoors ensconced in front of a computer screen, where is that going to leave us? If our immediate response to a child touching a leaf is to scour his hands with triclosan, what chance do we have?

We have a chance. Maybe this boy will walk down to the beach, watch the gulls banking into the wind, note the way the crest of a wave catches the sunlight and shatters it into globes of liquid silver, listen to the gurgle and clink of pebbles rolling in the rush of retreating waves and think: The world we live in isn’t dangerous, and it isn’t dirty – unless we make it so. The natural world is gorgeous, wondrous, and worth preserving.

Chucking stones

Chucking stones

For his sake, and for ours, I sure hope so.shells on the beach

14 thoughts on “Plants, Poisons, and the Future of Life on Earth

  1. Couldn’t of said it better myself!!!!
    Yet it would seem we are in the minority of parents more and more. My daughter and I had a picnic on the weekend with a group of friends all with toddlers at a local park. The amount of wiping, tut tutting about not having shoes and socks on at all times, and reprimanding 2 year olds for dropping toys on the dirty dirty grass was an eye opener for me.


    • “The dirty, dirty grass.” Oh Lord. When I was a kid I took off my shoes the last day of school and put them back on the first day back. I hope none of those parents who were worried about what their kids touched was feeding them “Lunchables.” It is indeed eye-opening and saddening, but when kids are exposed to the outdoors in a normal, natural way they generally love it. I took a group of kids hiking last year, and one of the girls had never – never – in her 7 years of life been for a walk in the forest. On the Monday when they returned to school, the girl came running up to me to tell me that the hike had been her best day EVER! I was, you can imagine, rather pleased.


  2. I wonder if our disconnect with nature has gone past the point of no turning back. Who does really know their environment anymore? Nobody spends much time in nature because most people don’t make a living that way anymore. Nobody lives where they were born. If they do, they are surrounded by invasive species that were not there just a couple years ago.
    I am glad that there are people like you who still dare to discover and pass their love of nature on to future generations. But even you could use an overly cautious grandmother if you happened to tumble over a beautiful Castor oil plant and, not recognizing what it was, wanted to chew on its poisonous beans. What’s the rest of us supposed to do then?


    • Well Levi, we’re certainly never going back to the intimate knowledge and relationship with nature that we had as hunter-gatherers or even farmers, but it’s never too late for kids to learn a love of the natural world – and to desire to protect it. “My son Bence and I got up early and hiked to a nearby hilltop to see the solar eclipse this morning. The colors before sunrise were beautiful. We got really lucky, too, because it was cloudy but the sky cleared just a little bit towards the end and we got to see the eclipse briefly between two clouds. Bence said this was the second best experience in his life.” Moments like that are really, really important, and obviously Bence was moved by the experience.
      Regarding castor beans, what you do is teach your kids to never, never eat anything unless you approve it, or there’s a chance that they’ll be having the best experience of their lives – getting their stomachs pumped. 😉


  3. I feel as though the mothers actions were to strong on a four/ five year old child being curious about the plant in question but, the grandmother took a large part in this deed as well. It’s all about specification the matter as of these people are obviously germaphobes and that is not a crime. Although small, littering is a crime and bad example for the child (nice work mom). I say it is abuse to a young child’s mind it isn’t physical abuse. Plus what are you going to do about it anyway, you could probably speak up a little but you can’t have them arrested and their child taken because of this abuse you just have to simply accept the fact that people are people, not perfect.


  4. While I strongly oppose anti-bacterial anything, I have to admit (and here i’m hoping not to get stoned) that I assumed oleander is poisonous even if you looked at it from a mile away. When I looked it up it appears you have to actually suck the nectar from the flowers and/or ingest the leaves. I wouldn’t call it a friendly plant, so I can kind of see why the granny lost it and practically dislocated the kid’s shoulder. On the other hand, yes, parents are way to crazed these days about “protecting” their kids. I’m most nervous, and at the same time proud, when I allow my kids to eat a sandwich at the playground sans hand washing even though they’d just been playing in the dirt where all the birds hang out and probably leave parasites via their fecal matter. Do I get points for that?


    • Truth be told, Mama, I’m not even sure it was an oleander. I just made that up to add detail to the post – guess I should have looked it up first. I’m going down there asap though, to see exactly what species of shrubbery we’re talking about here. And yes, you get major points for being anti-anti-bacterial and letting your kids shovel down parasite-laden bird shit. I’m sure some readers think I collect the stuff and spread it on their morning spelt-toast. Whatever spelt is.


  5. Of course there may have been extenuating circumstances – when my son was having chemo, that would have been us. But in all likelihood that wasn’t the case here, and I agree with you, it’s a sad thing. Little kids should get dirty… It makes everything more fun!


    • Indeed, I used this example simply to illustrate a larger point, and there may have been a perfectly good explanation. (Much better than the facetious ones I offered.)
      I’m just frustrated that many parents seem to discourage their children from interacting with the world around them in general, and the natural world in particular.
      Happy to hear that your son is in remission and doing better!


  6. Whilst I agree with children getting out and enjoying nature, I thought I might mention that Oleandar plants are poisonous if someone injests the nectar from the flower or chews the leaves. Maybe the child’s mother and grandmother were just responsibly caring for the child’s safety, which is of greater importance than if he is left with negative feelings about plants!


    • Now don’t I feel stupid. On a number of counts. One, it rather undermines my position if the plant in question was in fact toxic. (Although apparently you have to ingest the thing.) But that’s not really it. Why I have egg on my face is that I didn’t at the time notice the species of shrub, and simply put oleander in there because they’re common and, quite frankly, I like the name. Guess I should have fact-checked ahead of publication. I will, however, get down to that square as soon as I can and let you know definitively what species it was. Thanks for reading, and for setting me straight.


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