We’ve all seen it. Around our homes and offices, sitting quietly in ceramic pots. Taking in the sunlight and not calling attention to itself. Until someone spoke.

When the news that dieffenbachia (pictured above), could be more than just a quiet flora making our houses and offices beautiful with a fusion of white, yellow and green foliage, we worked our voices sore in protest.

In the words of the person who brought the information to the light on a local news forum, Nairaland, the plant can “kill a child in less than a minute and an adult in 15 minutes.”

It’s not the first time information about the toxicity of dieffenbachia is being aired. On the same forum in 2015, a poster shared an image of the plant with a similar warning. While it didn’t get much attention back then, Nigerians are all fired up about it now.

So how much of this is true? Is dieffenbachia, also called Dumb Cane, a disaster waiting to unfurl? A floral powder keg waiting to unleash a biological terror on whoever trips it?

Dieffenbachia, the plant we potted in our homes and offices, the one we grew up with, is indeed toxic. But the message on the board is more a red herring than a piece to help save lives.

It is markedly exaggerated.

If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to think it’s a systematic attempt by the underground lords of the plant hierarchy to expel the affable, low maintenance dieffenbachia from its place in people’s offices and homes. Of course, that will border on insane.

Deaths from Dieffenbachia are likely, but it’s rare. On top of that, such death will not be as a result of ingestion. It will, instead, be as a possible result of the results of the ingestion.

Let’s break this down.

Ingesting the dieffenbachia leaf can cause the mouth and tongue to become swollen. It’s why the plant is also called “Dumb Cane” plant. Swollen mouth and tongue generally makes it difficult to speak, making someone appear dumb, hence the name.

Diffenbachia Tropic Snow

Diffenbachia Tropic Snow (Via miamitropicalplants.com)

What causes the swelling are the Oxalic acid and a protein found in the plant called Asparagine.

It is the possible blocking of the airwaves by the distended tongue and mouth that can lead to death. Not the poison from dieffenbachia.

No convincing medical research points to the lethal outworking of dieffenbachia ingestion. Although there are cases where chewing the leaf could lead to more severe outcomes, such cases are rare. An eMedicince article discussing caladium, dieffenbachia, and philodendron plant poisoning explored one such case. According to it, the serious complication of aorta oesophageal fistula following ingestion of a dieffenbachia leaf was described in a single 2005 case report Involving a 12 year old girl who recovered following surgical intervention.

There is also the claim of possible blindness if a dieffenbachia leaf comes in contact with the eye. This is also a bit of a laying on on the part of the warning. Such exposure could lead to eye pain or irritation, but not blindness as the warning claims.

Patients can experience dermal and ocular exposure, according to the same eMedicine article, resulting in contact dermatitis or keratoconjunctivitis. But the symptoms that stem from these routes of exposure also appear to resolve with supportive care.

The piece made no mention of permanent blindness.

Apparently, none of these clarifications make chowing down on a dieffenbachia plant remotely okay. If it so happens that you do, though, a quick first aid is to wipe down the mouth with a cold wet cloth, drink a sizeable quantity of milk and breathe well through your mouth so as not to block your airways. In the case of contact with the skin or eyes, rinse your eyes or skin thoroughly. Then ring the doctors as soon as possible for further checks.

The dieffenbachia is not all swollen mouth and dumbness. It has its benefits. Aside putting a touch of life into a home with its beautiful mix of white, green and yellow foliage, research has found that dieffenbachia contains active ingredients that cause antiangiogenic effect potential for the treatment of cancer.

As a houseplant, the dieffenbachia also cleans toxins from the air. It can be especially effective in overcrowded, carpeted offices where ventilation can be an issue. It has been proven that colds and viruses are less where there are houseplants. NASA tests confirm that plants clean formaldehyde and other toxins from the air [PDF]. Formaldehyde, from paper towels, garbage bags, tissues, carpet backing and floor coverings,  is present in our offices and homes. Dieffenbachia removes not only formaldehyde but also xylene and toulene – two other pollutants, says the NASA research.

The warning message may have worn down its usefulness with exaggeration. Nonetheless, it’s wise to be careful around a dieffenbachia plant. Swallowing dieffenbachia won’t directly lead to death, but the prospects of swollen tongue, mouth and itchy eyes for us, our kids or our pets, doesn’t seem appealing.

We’ll advise you keep the plant where it’s not easily reachable by your kids or pets, or simply keep them out of your house. Whatever you do, don’t tell one more person that this plant can kill their child in less than a minute or them in 15 minutes.

Featured images:  Diffebachia bowmanii by Louiss Wolffe (Via Wikipedia)