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Laburnum anagyroides, common laburnum

Laburnum

Summary

This beautiful tree is one of the most feared of the poison plants (and produces the most searches of all of them) but it does not justify its harmful reputation.

Many people who remove it from the garden leave other more dangerous plants in place. The A to Z list on the right has examples.

Family

Leguminosae

Meaning of the Name

Laburnum
Another circular definition. The only indication of the derivation of the word is that it is believed to have been a foreign word brought into Latin. The ‘urnum’ suffix in Latin usually means ‘belonging to’ so it is possible that the plant came from some place whose name has become shortened to ‘Lab’. Since some Laburnum species have common names related to cedar, it may be that the plant originated in Lebanon.

Equally, it could be based on Liburni, the Illyrian people who gave their name to liburna, a light, swift sailing ship.

It is, sometimes, said to be from 'labium' for 'lips' because of the leaf shape but, in his 1828 'Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language', Francis Edward Jackson Valpy gives this explanation in the appendix of 'The Most Dubious Derivations'.

anagyroides
‘Like Anagyris’, a genus of shrubs with similar seed pods.

Common Names and Synonyms

common laburnum, golden chain

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains cytisine, a quinolizidine alkaloid whose effects are often described as being very similar to nicotine. It seems, however, that it is not nearly as strong a poison as nicotine. 

Laburnum anagyroides, common laburnum

All parts of the tree are poisonous: roots, bark, wood, leaves, flower-buds, petals, and seedpods. The harmful part of the plant is the seedpods which are mistaken by children for peapods, usually after they have been shown how to eat fresh raw peas straight from the plant in the vegetable garden.

In many cases of ingestion of a small number of seeds there are no symptoms. Where symptoms do occur these are usually nausea and vomiting. Higher doses can produce intense sleepiness, convulsive possibly tetanic movements, coma, slight frothing at the mouth and unequally dilated pupils.

In 'Accidental poisoning deaths in British children 1958-77'* published by the British Medical Journal, Neil C Fraser writes 'Laburnum is frequently cited as the most toxic and commonly fatal poisonous plant in both children and adults, but there appears to be no report this century of a childhood poisoning death'.

In a 1979 contribution to ‘The Lancet’ entitled ‘Have you Eaten Laburnum?’, R M Forrester says that there are around 3,000 hospital admissions due to Laburnum poisoning each year. This figure is arrived at by extrapolating from the number of cases reported in the north-west of England. Yet, there are no reported cases of deaths in children due to laburnum. Forrester says ‘It is suggested that laburnum is not as dangerous as has been thought and that many of these admissions are unnecessary’.

There was a case, in 1970, where a paranoid schizophrenic, resident in a mental hospital, was believed to have committed suicide by eating a very large quantity of the fruits and this may have led to the belief that the tree was extremely dangerous. The case provided quite a puzzle for investigators since the man had had a brief conversation with a nurse only about ten minutes before death and had not reported or manifested any of the gastro-intestinal symptoms normally expected with severe laburnum poisoning.

*The article also says that in the period covered there were three deaths of children under 10 attributed to plants. Even this low number is overstated since one death was due to fungi and in one of the other two 'the role of ingestion in the child's demise is doubtful'. Thus there may have been only one confirmed plant death, with 'hemlock' being the plant responsible, in twenty years. The report deals with a total of 598 deaths and makes it clear that medication, household cleaning materials and cosmetics pose a much higher risk than poison plants.

Laburnum

Incidents

The majority of incidents with Laburnum are related to the seeds but, in 1883, a Dr Biggs reported the case of a 4-year old boy who had ingested a large quantity of leaves. He became pale and cold but vomited regularly and recovered within a few hours.

There have been numerous instances of children eating laburnum seeds and having their stomachs pumped but many report no onset of any symptoms before the treatment.

The Summer 2003 edition of Poisons Quarterly, the Regional Newsletter from the London Centre of the National Poisons Information Service, gives a case where three children, attending a barbecue, had their own party further down the garden and were discovered eating ‘peas’ from a tree. The 3-year old showed no symptoms, the 5-year old vomited twice and had stomach ache but the 4-year old had severe vomiting with tachycardia and twitching. All recovered.

On 7th June 2007, there was an incident, in Ipswich, involving a laburnum tree and primary school children. The school grounds had been extended by clearing an overgrown area which put a neighbour’s laburnum tree in range. Fifteen children were taken to hospital after being seen playing with the seedpods. There were fears that some may have eaten them but none became ill. The incident occurred during ‘Healthy Living week’.

Laburnum anagyroides, common laburnum

The pea-like seedpods.

A woman in her late 50s, said that as a child she had eaten Laburnum seeds, thinking they were peas. She developed a ‘very sore tummy’ but didn’t dare tell her mother for fear of being in trouble, as she knew she shouldn’t have eaten the seeds. She recovered without having any treatment.

A woman ate laburnum seeds as a child. She and her friend took the ‘peapods’ off a neighbour’s overhanging tree and sat in the den eating them. By the time her mother found them they were both unwell and needed several days in hospital after having their stomachs pumped to recover.

A man recalled his brother trying to persuade him and some friends to eat some laburnum seeds. Only two of them did. One spat them out saying they didn’t taste nice and the other got to ride in a ‘Dee Da’ as the children called it.

The reputation of laburnum leads many parents and grandparents to remove the tree to avoid poisoning in children. That many of these people continue to grow plants with much more substantial histories of doing harm is by the by. In one case, a father decided to cut down a laburnum to prevent his three year old daughter from eating the seeds. He was called into the house just after felling it and returned to find the child happily eating the seeds which he had put into her range.

The MAFF publication ‘Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man’, says that all stories about laburnum causing serious poisoning and death are untraceable.

In 2009, the journal 'Forensic Science International' reported the case of a 20-year old male who died from respiratory failure after drinking tea made from Laburnum leaves. Other possible causes of death were eliminated before the conclusion was reached that cytisine poisoning was responsible. 

Folklore and Facts

Dreaming of this tree in bloom predicts that you will overcome the adverse influences around you by vigorous application of intelligent effort. The flowers mean forsaken, pensive beauty.

That the whole tree is poisonous and not just the seeds is demonstrated by people who have lost kittens when they used a laburnum tree trunk as a scratching post. As long ago as 1928, it was said that exposure to the sawdust of laburnum wood caused ‘constitutional symptoms’. This phrase is used to mean a general feeling of being unwell.

The 1894 case of Webb versus Lemmon established the principle that a neighbour can cut back overhanging branches without consulting the owner of the tree. In 1919, the case of Mills versus Brooker, established that the removed parts still belonged to the owner of the tree. In this case, Brooker had picked apples from overhanging branches and sold them but the case is used for all foliage. These cases establish the precedent that is still applied today and leads to countless disputes between neighbours when the plant owner becomes aggrieved that not only has the plant been cut back but the cuttings have been ‘dumped’ on his side of the fence.

The previous paragraph here on this topic, 'Webb’s laburnum tree overhung Lemon’s field and Lemon’s horse ate the foliage and died. The judge ruled that Lemon could remove any overhanging branches but that they must be returned to Webb as they remained his property', was, therefore, wrong.