Dear Miss Floribunda,


My cat, Hunter Tomson, is a plant pouncer. Even before the pandemic, he was always kept indoors, and until lately, he was happy wrestling with his toys. Now he seeks bigger game and likes to attack plants and chew on them. Occasionally he’s gotten sick and thrown up. Knowing that poinsettias are poisonous, I didn’t get any last December, and got an amaryllis instead. When I took it out of the kitchen window and put it on the floor, Hunter shredded its leaves and gnawed on the stem. He was sick for days, and couldn’t eat anything. Now I’m wondering about getting rid of other of my houseplants and replacing them with pet-friendly ones. Can you tell me which plants are bad for pets, especially dangerously so? Which plants are OK? 


Fending For My Feline On Farragut Street


Dear Fending,


As it happens, poinsettias are far less harmful to cats than are amaryllis. Poinsettia sap irritates their mouths and gums, so very little is likely to be swallowed. Even if your tom does ingest some, he’d likely experience only enough nausea for one vomit and then would go about his business. But amaryllis, and any other plant in the lily family, could be fatal to cats. (Dogs are less susceptible, but still would get sick.) The peace lily (Spathiphyllum), although not a true lily, can be very harmful to cats as well. A better holiday plant is the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) with its long-lasting, colorful blooms that won’t poison your pet. Don’t confuse this with the equally colorful Kalanchoe, which is quite poisonous. Keep Kalanchoe out of your cat’s reach — if that is possible.


Now, rather than give you a long list of houseplants that are poisonous to pets — because most of them are, to some extent — I’d rather let you know which plants will not harm your imprudent predator. With the exception of oregano, you can grow most aromatic herbs with impunity. Basil, sage, rosemary, rue and thyme are harmless, in the unlikely event your cat would come near. 


Cats are a challenge to houseplant lovers because of their ability to climb and jump. Fortunately, there are ways of deterring cats from houseplants. Though it might repel you as well as the cat, you can sprinkle cayenne pepper on your plants. Because you’d need to repeat the process frequently, your cayenne pepper bill could mount up quite a bit eventually. Just as effective as a repellent are citrus rinds. Actually, putting orange peels around your plants is a convenient way to dispose of them after you eat the orange. 

them. Even though lavender and oregano could be harmful to cats, their strong odor acts as a repellent. In fact, you might consider planting a pennyroyal, creeping thyme or serpentine rosemary as repellents in the same pot with large plants that are notoriously dangerous to cats and dogs, such as ficus and sago palm. Although cats are not repelled by African violets (Saintpaulia) and polka dot plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya), they will leave them alone. They are indifferent to the lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus radicans) and other peperomias. Thorny plants and cacti will not be approached more than once. All of these plants require a fairly sunny spot in your home.


Low-light plants that are safe to have in your home are the aluminum plant (Pilea cadierei), the prayer plant (Calathea), and the Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata). In fact, the only “fern” that is not safe for your cat is the asparagus fern, because it’s really not a fern, but a member of the lily family. The airplane or spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is nontoxic as well, and, like the Boston fern, can be hung out of reach from the ceiling — although your cat sounds as if he might like the challenge of hanging from a botanical chandelier. If you want a palm tree, you’re safe with the parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans). 


Your cat may need a vegetable supplement to his diet, and this could be one of the reasons he goes on the hunt. There are a number of cat grasses you can grow, the most popular of which is Dactylis glomerata. If you dare, you could also grow a pot of two of catnip (Nepeta cataria), but if your cat is already hyperactive, you might find your furniture toppled over when he’s under the influence. Despite the name you gave your cat, it would not be safe to indulge him with cannabis. Though less toxic to cats than to dogs, it can still cause severe vomiting and even seizures.


Please check the website of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society for any information concerning future events or meetings.