Making drought-tolerant landscapes safer for communities

Sep 16, 2020

Participants commit to improving the safety of their landscape after receiving Cooperative Extension information about safely planting drought-tolerant plants, contributing to improved community health. 

The Issue

Gardeners and homeowners have become more concerned and aware of the importance and need to conserve water in San Diego County in order to help protect California's natural resources. As they replace their water-consuming plants with more drought-tolerant options, they may have unknowingly planted harmful or poisonous plants. Also, as commercial landscapes are becoming more sustainable, drought-tolerant plants are being used more frequently. When toxic plants are used in the wrong places, there is a greater chance that people and pets will become injured. Gardeners have ended up in the hospital because they have gotten the toxic sap of Fire Sticks in their eyes.

How UC Delivers

Dr. Chris McDonald, UCCE Natural Resources Advisor and Carolyn Martus, staff research associate, developed a list of commonly sold drought-tolerant plants that are also toxic or harmful. We took our list of 100 plants and created species profiles for each plant that summarized why the plant was harmful and offered advice on how to plant them safely. With the help of UCCE digital media specialist, Benjamin DiAnna, we developed a bookmark, brochure and the Planting Safely in Drought-Tolerant Landscapes website that provides summary information and shows gardeners how to enjoy these plants safely. We also hosted a web-based presentation to show people how to use the website. The project was a team effort and also involved many San Diego Master Gardeners. 

There has been a lot of interest in California to ensure that landscapes are sustainable and use water efficiently. We have created, in an easy to use format, information about the toxic and harmful qualities of some drought-tolerant plants. Toxic plants like Fire Sticks are frequently appearing in many landscapes in San Diego County and need to be used with care. These UCCE materials also provide advice on how to garden safely with these plants including tips on pruning, planting locations, and different ways of reducing your risk. One common mistake gardeners make is planting a harmful plant too close to a walkway. Replanting those plants where they can be seen and not touched can prevent many problems.

The Impact

Our public education campaign to teach people how to plant safely has helped Californians continue to protect our natural resources and improve water-use efficiency in the landscape while also improving the health of everyone in the community. During our workshop, 100% of participants committed to improving the safety of their landscape. Many of these plants can injure you, for example researchers have found that Euphorbias, such as fire sticks and crown of thorns, can cause serious eye injuries that can require attention by medical professionals. This website and education materials can be used to improve community health and wellness."

 “I had a friend whose dog ate a leaf of a Sago Palm and nearly died.  It was a shock to learn that some of our favorite plants can be so toxic!” Valorie Shatynski, UCCE Master Gardener.


By Chris McDonald
Author - Inland and Desert Natural Resources Advisor, County Co-Director San Bernardino