I had finally gotten around to pruning the Japanese yew shrubs on either side of the front door to the house. One was growing through the wrought iron railing, encroaching on the entry. The branches and evergreen needles seemed to be spring loaded, flying in all directions from the act of cutting. Clippings ended up strewn everywhere. I went into the house for a a few moments. The window over the kitchen sink looked out into the large backyard. I could see the children playing happily with their new goat kids, Hot Shot and Pansy. The goats were about four months old, sturdy enough to survive handling by supervised children, but small enough to be safe for little people. The children were age 12 to 2. Suddenly, I realized with horror that the goats were being fed the yew branches.
I didn’t know yew was poisonous. I just had a sense that it was wrong. Maybe it was the subconscious memory of the occasional dead bird under that area of the front yard. I yelled somewhat desperately at the children to stop! I told them we just didn’t know about that plant yet. By the end of the day we knew only too well.
A short time later, they found one of the goats, Hot Shot, laying dead. The other, Pansy, was laying there in distress. I took her into the laundry room, hoping I could nurse her through the crisis. Her eyes were wide with terror. Her whole body would shudder and she would stop breathing. I thought if I stimulated her, she might live until the poison got through her system.
It didn’t seem I could leave the goat for a minute without risking her dying. After a while, I managed to call the vet. He told me that the poison in the Japanese yew is the chemical equivalent of hemlock. Two ounces could kill an average dog. The vet was grim, but not unkind, as he told me to be grateful I hadn’t just killed six grown horses like one of his clients did. There was nothing that would save them.
Those yews were removed from my yard. I know that there are many common landscape plants that have poisonous parts, but the way the yew clippings flew through the air was more than I could deal with. That made it hard to contain and I would never know if I had bagged all the pieces. Plus, the shrub has beautiful, bright red berries in the fall. This is apparently what attracted the birds.
Everyone in our household became interested in poisonous plants after that. First, we looked up hemlock and discovered what a common weed water hemlock is. We were able to identify it along the irrigation ditch at the outermost border of our backyard. We also saw it while hiking in local wilderness areas. We came across stories of children dying from just putting the tubular stems to their lips to use as “pea-shooters.”
Not all plants listed as poisonous are equally deadly, though. Some are even used as medicine in small doses (foxglove as digitalis). And not all poisonous plants are tempting or even easy to ingest. It would take extra effort to dig up a daffodil bulb, let alone sink your teeth into it. Flowers are not an everyday food item for most children, so it is less likely it will occur to them to have one for a snack. For some reason, mud is usually more appealing.
As we tried to learn what in our yard might be toxic, we noticed that goats and chickens when left to forage, even in a relatively small penned pasture, seem to show some discretion. Goats love thistles and rose bushes, but leave the dreaded mallow to thrive. A weed known as shepherds purse was considered prime pickings, but they didn’t eat the daffodil inadvertently enclosed in their pen. The biggest risk for goats seemed to be if they were offered something by their caretakers.
Chickens seem to scratch any plant into oblivion. It is hard to tell if they are less susceptible to toxic plants or if they are just eating around them, then converting them into compost with their claws. Either way, I do not know of any of our chickens dying from poisonous plants, even though I give them year-end tomato plants covered in frost damaged tomatoes.
Good came from the goat tragedy. The event was burned into the minds of our children. We did raise several generations of goats successfully afterward. Growing up, the children didn’t test the edibility of plants without asking first, or watching their father eat it. My husband can be alarming sometimes, but he is still alive. Even though they trust his judgement, they are inclined to help him do a thorough study before activities like morel mushroom hunting in the woods. They don’t live in fear, however. It is more like the world is a place with magical plants and fairy brews. It’s best to be alert, but the adventure can still be fun.