When Tyler Ross’ 3-year-old daughter, Adelyn, first showed him the little red berries she’d found in their Harris Ranch backyard, he was sure to remind her not to eat any.
“(She) came to us and said, ‘Look what I found,’ ” Ross said in a phone interview. “We said, ‘We can’t eat that’ (and) asked her if she ate it ... and she said no. We went about our day without knowing what it was.”
Several hours later on Sunday, Aug. 18, the toddler had “a fairly severe tummy ache and started popping a fever and started kind of shaking,” Ross said.
“We were kind of going through our heads (thinking), ‘What could have caused this?’ ” he said. “I instantly thought, what is that berry she had and did she maybe eat one?”
He asked Adelyn again: “Did you eat any of those berries?”
“She said, ‘I had one,’ ” Ross said.
After comparing photos online, the Rosses thought they knew what Adelyn had eaten — a berry from an ornamental yew plant, a highly poisonous but popular landscaping bush that some wanted banned in Idaho two years ago after dozens of big game animals died from ingesting it.
“So we immediately thought to call Poison Control,” Ross said.
According to Idaho Department of Fish and Game botanist Lynn Kinter, the berries themselves aren’t poisonous, but the seeds they contain, along with the plant’s leaves, branches and roots, are toxic. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness and muscle weakness, according to the Toxicology Data Network.
“(Yew) can kill people or animals very quickly,” Kinter said in a phone interview. “It’s considered one of the most poisonous plants in the world.”
Poison Control told Ross to take his daughter to the emergency room immediately. It was the third call from Idaho to Poison Control about yew exposure this year, and the seventh since the start of 2017. Those numbers were provided to the Statesman by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare via the Nebraska Regional Poison Center, which handles Idaho calls.
Effects of toxic yew plants
At the Saint Alphonsus emergency room, Adelyn was admitted for testing and an overnight stay.
“It was a pretty traumatizing experience for her and obviously for us, as parents,” Ross said. “ ... She’s 100% now, thank God for that.”
Ross said he was told to monitor the toddler, who still appears to be in good health more than a week after the incident.
Once Adelyn was stable, Ross took action. The bush was already in the yard when the family purchased the house.
“Obviously being a dad, I immediately tore that bush out and disposed of it, root system and all,” Ross said. “But man, it really opened our eyes.”
Ross posted on his neighborhood NextDoor site to warn others in the Harris Ranch area about the plants. That’s how he got in touch with Angela Rossmann, who in 2017 spearheaded efforts to remove the popular landscaping plant from local businesses. Rossmann also reached out to government officials in an effort to stop the sale of the Japanese, English, Chinese and Canadian species of the plant that are so toxic.
Rossmann told Ross that some yew plants, which were originally on the list of approved landscaping for Harris Ranch, were removed from the area when officials learned of their toxicity. However, his was inside a fenced yard.
Rossmann’s campaign came in the wake of an unusually snowy winter during which wildlife came into the valley, ate ornamental yew leaves and branches and promptly died in alarming numbers.
“That got the toxic nature of ornamental yew on people’s radars,” Fish and Game botanist Kinter said.
It takes only a small amount of yew to kill an animal as large as an elk or pronghorn antelope. Kinter said experts estimate it only takes 50 to 100 grams of yew leaves to kill an adult human, and the plant only becomes more toxic as it dries, meaning dead plants or clippings are still deadly.
Using yew in Idaho landscaping
According to Kinter, documented cases of yew toxicity date as far back as the first century B.C., when Julius Caesar wrote about a king who poisoned himself with the plant. Shakespeare also made reference to the deadliness of yew.
Despite that reputation, it still became a popular landscaping plant, likely because it’s drought-resistant, evergreen and easy to prune, Kinter said. Many businesses don’t label the plant as toxic, so unsuspecting buyers end up purchasing yew without realizing their dog could die after playing fetch with one of its branches.
“Just walking around neighborhoods in Boise, one or two houses per block will have it,” Kinter said.
In the past, Idaho officials have floated the idea of outright banning the plant or simply requiring sellers to include information about its toxicity. In the meantime, Ross and his wife are trying to spread the word through social media.
“We want to ... share our story to hopefully bring awareness to other folks that don’t know anything about the yew,” he said.
In 2017, Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, proposed designating the plant as a noxious weed, but the legislation never made it out of committee. The Idaho Nursery & Landscape Association opposed the move, and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture declined to create a rule designating ornamental yew species as noxious weeds.
“It’s now obviously evident that (the plants) can affect humans as well as livestock and big game,” Heider told the Statesman in a phone interview. He also spoke to Ross about Adelyn’s incident.
“I really would like to see something done (in the next legislative session), and I don’t know what tack we’ll take,” Heider said. “We don’t want to be the big hand of government but we need to protect people.”
Ross said he’d like to see more focus on the potential impacts on humans.
“Everything’s kind of geared toward wildlife and conservation and now with our experience it’s like, wait a second. Yes, we all care about wildlife,” Ross said, “but now it’s affecting our children, that’s a whole other ballgame.
“Frankly, with our experience, I’m not concerned about the wildlife. I’m concerned about the health and welfare of our kids. You couldn’t care less about the elk when it’s happening to your family.”