'Toxic' alter ego: Sago Palm - Pacific Standard

'Toxic' alter ego: Sago Palm

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Pet owners and parents beware. The sago palm wants you to think it's just a pretty addition to your garden landscape, but in reality it is one of the most toxic household shrubs planted today.

The entire plant, not just its red seeds, are full of carcinogens and neurotoxins that can induce vomiting, headaches and seizures upon ingestion. One chemical, cycasin, can cause permanent liver and neurological damage if large enough quantities are absorbed by the body. The amino acid beta-methylamino-L-alanine, on the other hand, is a neurotoxin suspected of inducing nerve degeneration and tremor symptoms similar to Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's disease. Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, Amy Stewart describes how improper preparation of sago flour seeds (a soaking method can leach out the poisons) was likely responsible for high rates of a Lou Gehrig's disease variation in Guam after World War II.

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The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which considers the sago palm among the most toxic plants to animals,  says cases of sago palm and related cycad species poisonings in pets increased 200 percent between 2003 and 2008, and an estimated 50 to 75 percent of these poisonings were fatal.  They suggest homeowners consider replacing sago palms with nontoxic plants if monitoring pet (or child) behavior around the plants is not feasible.

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