If there’s one lesson that we’ve learned from Nature, it’s that toxic plants are often quite beautiful. With that in mind, is bougainvillea poisonous and should you be growing it in your garden?
The good news is that you shouldn’t need to worry. Bougainvillea sap is mildly toxic, to the point that if the plant’s thorns cut you then you might get a rash that’s similar to poison ivy. The flowers, however, are actually edible and sometimes fried in batter, served raw with salads, or even made into a yummy, medicinal tea as a cure for a nasty cough.
There’s a little more to it, of course, and today we’re going to answer the question ‘Is Bougainvillea poisonous?’ in detail by comparing the toxicity for adults, children, and pets, and we’ll even share that medicinal tea recipe that we’ve mentioned and some frequently asked question along the way.
Let’s talk about Bougainvilleas and the truth about their toxicity!
Table of Contents
Bougainvillea toxicity – What you need to know
Bougainvillea plants do indeed have some toxicity, but it is extremely mild, and it’s not going to be present in the flowers. The leaf bracts that make those flowers are also considered safe and sometimes used medicinally for their anti-inflammatory effects. That said, with the rest of the plant – roots, vines, thorns – you’ll be dealing with components that DO have toxic factors.
This boils down to 3 main components:
Saponins – Saponins are a diverse natural product of many plants, that help to do things like defend them against hungry herbivores and to keep diseases at bay. With Bougainvillea, the volume of saponins is sufficient to cause diarrhea or vomiting if inedible portions of the plant are ingested.
Oxalate crystals – Oxalate crystals are tiny, thin crystals that often reside in plant tissues to help with things like regulating photosynthesis, detoxifying metals, conducting calcium homeostasis, and protecting the plant. When ingested, the needle-like oxalate crystals can cause swelling of the mouth, tongue, and throat – which local herbivores quickly learn and that’s why they leave your Bougainvillea plants alone!
Flavonoids – Flavonoids perform many roles, such as color, flavor, and fragrance in various parts of plants, but also more granular functions like regulating the growth of cells, protection from biotic and abiotic factors, and helping to attract pollinators. This component in Bougainvillea sap is what causes skin irritation when a thorn pricks you and a little sap gets passed to the wound.
What happens when you are exposed to these components will vary greatly, mostly based on your age, but also your species, so let’s explore that aspect of Bougainvillea toxicity so you’ve got a more complete picture.
Is Bougainvillea toxic to adults?
For adults, unless you have very sensitive skin, Bougainvillea is almost completely harmless. At the most, if you are handling them without gloves and prick yourself on the thorns, then you’ll be contending with dermatitis. The symptoms are rather like poison ivy or poison oak, so you’ll be itchy and it’s a rash that you shouldn’t scratch, lest you spread that toxic sap a bit and make the rash worse.
If this happens, then what you’ll want to do is to apply a cold compress to the area and the easiest way to do that is to take a nice, thick, and clean washcloth, drop it into a bowl of ice water, and then apply it to the affected area for approximately 10-15 minutes. The cold should help with the swelling and if the itching is really getting to you, then some over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help or you can take your favorite allergy medicine and it should quickly subsist.
What about for children?
Children are more at risk with Bougainvilleas, although it’s mostly a matter of their innate curiosity and their tendency to taste new things in your garden when you aren’t looking! Since they have less mass, they are going to be more susceptible to the toxins. Ingesting large amounts of the plant (sans the flowers or leaves) may result in diarrhea, vomiting, or nausea.
As with adults, pricks from the thorns may result in a skin rash, and this tends to be worse for kids as well, but mostly because it might occur when they are trying to push through the vine like shrubs to look closely at something on the other side or on the ground. So, you might be dealing with multiple rashes instead of one, but the treatment is the same – hydrocortisone cream for the itching and a cold compress to help bring down the swelling.
Dogs, cats, and Bougainvillea
While humans shouldn’t have much difficulty with Bougainvilleas, for cats and dogs it can be mild to moderately toxic and there’s another difference you should be aware of – this includes the flowers, although they are the LEAST toxic part of the plant.
For dogs and cats, the leaves are USUALLY safe to chew on, but everything else should be considered toxic and you really should try to discourage your pet from the flowers/leaf bracts as eating a bunch of them can make your pet feel ill.
Now, the good news is that in most cases, you’ll just be dealing with an upset stomach and possibly some mild irritation around the mouth. That said, smaller cats and dogs will be more susceptible and in rare cases, if enough of the plant is ingested, then the toxicity could reach ‘moderate’ levels and become more dangerous.
If you see any of the following signs, then an immediate trip to the vet is in order:
- Vomiting (more than once – sometimes cats or dogs will immediately vomit out something inedible and be okay, but keep a close eye on them and bring them in anyway if you’re worried – it’s always the best policy)
- Swelling around the mouth
- Difficulty swallowing
- Breathing difficulties
Treatment will usually include flushing of the mouth, as well as activated charcoal or flushing of the stomach, and intravenous fluids are usually introduced to help hydrate your furry friend and get them back to feeling top-notch in short order.
Keep in mind that these are just worst-case scenarios – the ASPCA does Not include Bougainvilleas on their toxic list of plants. Also, while we’re on the subject, be sure to bookmark that link if you have pets – it’s extra useful if you have a garden and if you ever have questions about something your pet ingested, then put this phone number for the ASPCA Poison Control line on your refrigerator – 888-426-4435.
It’s toll-free, so you won’t be charged for calling, and they are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and on holidays so that you can reach them when you need them.
Té de Bugambilia – a delicious way to deal with a nasty cough
We’d mentioned that Bougainvillea flowers have made their way into things like salads, fried snacks, exotic pizzas, and also into the realm of medicinal teas, and so in this section we wanted to share a lovely recipe from Mama Maggie’s kitchen for Té de Bugambilia.
We’ll share the recipe here, but the link is definitely worth a visit when you have a moment. Maggie tells us that the recipe comes from her mother, who is from Durango, Mexico, where Bougainvillea tea is a common herbal treatment for a nasty cough or sore throat. She also shares some other traditional Mexican remedies, including a yummy Chicken soup, so be sure to give it a peek if you like home remedies!
Now, to make this tea, let’s take a look at what you’re going to need and the steps that will get you your delicious herbal tea remedy!
- 6 Bougainvillea flowers
- 1 cup water
Steps to make:
- Add your cup of water (or more, it’s just 6 flowers per cup), and add in your flowers. At this point, you can add some other flavored components, such as cinnamon, ginger, or other favorites, or simply go with the flowers and water.
- Bring the water to a boil and allow your ingredients to steep for 10 minutes.
- Mix in the sweetener of your choice (optional), such as white or brown sugar, honey, or your favorite sugar-free sweetener for hot drinks.
You may notice if you visit Maggie’s page that it shows pictures of flowers going into the tea, but the recipe calls for leaves, and while that seems a little confusing, with Bougainvillea it’s technically correct – the flowers are leaf-bracts, so we wanted to clear that up in case there was any confusion.
Now that you have the recipe for Té de Bugambilia, be sure to give it a try the next time that you’re feeling under the weather from a pesky cough – it might just be your new favorite herbal remedy!
That’s just about all of the time that we have for today, but before we go, we wanted to share some frequently asked questions about Bougainvillea and its mild toxicity to help with any ‘gaps’ that we might have missed along the way. Let’s take a look and then we’ll go ahead and wrap things up!
Can you get an infection from Bougainvillea thorns?
Yes, you can get an infection from Bougainvillea thorns piercing the skin if the area is untreated and especially if it gets dirty. The sap from the Bougainvillea may or may not cause a skin rash – but it’s still a puncture in the skin and it needs to be cleaned and treated to avoid infection.
Can bougainvillea cause blisters?
In severe cases, Bougainvillea rash can cause skin blisters, and if hydrocortisone and cold compresses are not helping, then it’s a good idea to visit the doctor. Allergic reactions can vary in intensity from person to person, so it’s always a good idea if a rash becomes severe to check in with your doctor for professional treatment.
To help avoid this, wearing gloves is a simple and effective way to protect yourself from Bougainvillea thorns and in most cases is going to prevent exposure – it’s an extra step, granted, but it’s a good one to protect yourself from accidental exposure to Bougainvillea thorns and it’s sap.
Is bougainvillea really medicinal?
Bougainvillea spectabilis is considered to be a medicinal plant in many parts of the world and is used for a wide range of herbal-remedy applications, such as sore throat and cough, anti-inflammatory properties, fertility issues, and more.
While we can’t attest to its efficacy from a scientific standpoint, we CAN say that the flowers make for a yummy tea and that many folks feel that it’s quite a comfort when you’ve got a nasty cough and the sore throat that goes with it. If you feel like testing it out, just give the recipe we’ve shared today a try and you can be the judge!
In today’s article we’ve answered the question ‘Is Bougainvillea poisonous?’ and while it doesn’t have high levels of toxicity, a break in the skin from the thorns can put you in contact with its mildly toxic sap and dermatitis may well be the result.
While the flowers are safe and often eaten in salads or made into teas, the rest of the plant has flavonoids, oxalate crystals, and Saponins that may result in diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting if ingested. So, technically there is some toxicity but it is very mild.
Finally, Bougainvillea is more toxic to cats and dogs than it is to people, so if you catch your cat or dog eyeing your Bougainvilleas, then you might want to fill a lidded can with pennies and give it shake when your pet gets near it – so that they’ll associate the plant with the loud sound and start leaving it alone.
If your pet ingests some and shows signs like shaking, drooling, diarrhea, vomiting, or swelling around the mouth, then be sure to get them to the vet right away, but this will be very rare and usually the plant will just give them a tummy ache for their trouble!
As always, thanks so much for visiting and if you feel the urge, please be sure to leave a little feedback in the comments before you go. Have a great week and we hope to see you again soon!
More Bougainvillea guides
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- How to propogate Bougainvillea
- How fast do Bougainvillea grow?
- A comprehensive Bougainvillea care guide
- How to grow Bougainvillea from seeds