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Pyracantha, also known as firethorn, is an evergreen shrub that belongs to the plant family Rosacea. There are several species including Pyracantha angustifolia, Pyracantha coccinea, Pyracantha fortuneana, and Pyracantha koidzumii. Although the appearance can differ depending on the species, the shrub typically has shiny evergreen foliage, white flowers, clusters of orange-red berries, and needle-like thorns. The size can range from 5 to 12 feet high and 6 to 8 feet wide. Plant hybrids offer smaller sizes as well as variations in berry color. In addition to year-round interest from the leaves, flowers, and berries, the shrub can be used as a natural barrier because of the dense thorns. The shrubs can be planted close together in lieu of fences and below windows to deter intruders.
The berries and thorns are the parts of the shrub most likely to be involved in a potentially poisonous exposure. Children are attracted to the bright berries, and ingestions are fairly common since the berries are easily within reach. Fortunately, the berries are not considered poisonous even though they contain miniscule amounts of a cyanide-like compound. A study of dogs and other mammals found that the animals readily swallowed large amounts of berries when offered and did not show any signs of toxicity. Some bird species regularly eat Pyracantha berries.
Serious toxicity has not been reported in humans, whether it is an unintentional ingestion of a few berries by a toddler or a deliberate ingestion of handful amounts in an attempt to self-harm. The main risk with ingestion of large quantities of berries is mild gastrointestinal irritation such as nausea and vomiting, which would happen within 15 to 30 minutes. A choking hazard is also possible if small children try to swallow several berries at once. Ingestion of a few berries is considered non-toxic. In fact, some components extracted from Pyracantha berries are being studied for potential health benefits; however, there are no current recommendations to eat the berries. There is no specific treatment for anyone swallowing the berries.
Puncture wounds from the thorns happen easily as anyone who has tried to prune these shrubs will attest. Although the thorns are not considered toxic, the skin around the puncture wound can become red, swollen, painful, and itchy. These symptoms are uncomfortable but not dangerous. Pyracantha thorn injuries can be managed at home by removing the thorn with tweezers, washing the puncture site with soap and water, and using an over-the-counter topical product for itching and inflammation. In the event the puncture wound becomes infected, a health professional should be seen. Most dangerous is when a thorn becomes embedded in a joint such as in the hand. These situations can result in inflammation to the tendon and surrounding membranes causing pain, swelling, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Anyone with an embedded thorn should see a health professional for removal and treatment. Pyracantha thorn injuries can be minimized by always wearing heavy gloves and eye protection when handling the branches.
If you suspect someone has swallowed Pyracantha berries, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. If someone has been injured by a Pyracantha thorn, wash the area well and seek medical evaluation if an infection occurs or if the thorn is embedded under the skin.
Karen D. Dominguez, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information