In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers’ questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest — and most cherished — medical myths out there. For our November-December 2011 issue, we asked Michael Wahl, MD, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center, in Chicago, about the relative risks of eating poinsettia.
Q: I’ve always heard that poinsettias are poisonous to kids and pets. My husband says that’s hogwash. Who’s right?
Like the Christmas myths about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and a toy workshop in the North Pole, the belief that poinsettias are poisonous is FALSE.
No one is sure how this myth started, although it’s often attributed to the 1919 death of a girl whose parents thought she had eaten poinsettia leaves. The truth is, a kid would have to eat about 500 poinsettia leaves to get sick.
“There haven’t been any deaths reported due to eating poinsettia leaves,” Wahl says.
That’s not to say they’re harmless. If a child eats enough poinsettia leaves (say five), he may become nauseated or throw up. But he’s not going to die. And he’s probably not going to eat more than one or two bites in the first place because the leaves are “reported to have an unpleasant taste,” Wahl says.
Here’s what you should worry about your child swallowing during the holidays: holly berries (which are toxic), alcohol left in glasses, and small ornaments that look like food.
- Poinsettia Panic: How Toxic Are Poinsettias to Dogs?
- Poinsettias and Your Dog
- Flower power
- The white stuff
- Moody blues
- Hair of the dog
- Doughn’t eat it
- The bottom line
- Are poinsettias poisonous?
- Are poinsettias poisonous?
- Christmas Trees
- The Myth of the Poisonous Poinsettia
- Are poinsettias or any other holiday plants poisonous?
- Toxicity Of Poinsettias: Are Poinsettia Plants Poisonous
- Poinsettia Plant Toxicity
Poinsettia Panic: How Toxic Are Poinsettias to Dogs?
You may or may not have heard that poinsettias are highly toxic, even deadly to pets and children. If this is news to you, you maybe worried about bringing these popular plants into your home during the holidays since it’s “common knowledge” that they could be fatal when ingested.
Truth be told, poinsettias are not highly poisonous. Although they’re certainly not edible and could cause a host of complications if eaten by your pets, they’re not the highly toxic killers they’ve been made out to be. This is one myth that just won’t die and has become a part of traditional lore in a way that overly frightens people away. Here are the simple facts about poinsettias and how you can enjoy them while keeping your pets safe.
Poinsettias and Your Dog
Poinsettia poisoning does occur in dogs when they’ve ingested all or a large part of a poinsettia plant. Let’s be clear: your dog would likely have to devour almost your entire plant to be in any danger. Also take into account your dog’s weight. Small dogs obviously would only have to eat half the plant.
The reason that poinsettias are toxic to dogs is that they contain chemicals and saponins that can cause a reaction in your dog.
Poinsettias are native to Central America and Mexico, so you most likely won’t find them while hiking the foothills of Boise this year. However, when the holidays roll around, these brightly colored flowers are everywhere as a sign of good cheer and celebration. Their red flowers are iconic and attractive.
These plants are easy to spot but go by many different names. Here are the varieties and names of the poinsettia plant.
- Easter flower
- Mexican flame leaf
- Christmas flower
- Painted leaf
- Flor de Pascua
- Lobster flower plant
- Fleur Pentecote
- Etoile de Noel
Signs of Poinsettia Poisoning
The poinsettia plant’s toxicity level is known to be mild or moderate, meaning that fatality is highly unlikely. If your dog ingests poinsettias, the severity of his or her symptoms will be related to how much was consumed and your dog’s weight and relative health.
Look out for these symptoms if you believe your dog has eaten a poinsettia plant:
- Excessive drooling
- Licking lips repeatedly
- Irritation, particularly around the nose, skin, face, and lips
- Red, itchy, watering eyes
- Pawing at eyes and face
If your dog is experiencing these symptoms, it could be because the milky saponins and chemicals in the poinsettia plant’s leaves and stems are irritating her face and digestive tract. Phorbol esters and the altering of enzymes and protein functions from poinsettia may be the culprit behind your dog’s strange behavior.
What You Should Do
If you believe that your dog has ingested poinsettia, it’s worthwhile to call your vet and ask about the symptoms you’re seeing and discuss your concerns. Most likely, your dog will be able to pass the plant and handle the toxicity on his own, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If your dog hasn’t already emptied the contents of her stomach onto your carpet, your vet will likely induce vomiting to decontaminate her. Blood work and urinalysis will help shed like on organ function, as well as a biochemistry profile. Your dog may receive fluids and activated charcoal, and your vet will know whether additional monitoring is necessary.
The good news: the prognosis is likely good if your dog ingested poinsettia. To be on the safe side, keep all household plants, cleaners, human food, and chemicals out of reach and away from your dog. As always, if you have any concerns or questions about your dog’s health, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
CHICAGO — Are poinsettias really poisonous? Are snowflakes really pure as the driven snow? Does feasting really put on the pounds? Sure as sugarplums, myths and misconceptions pop up every holiday season. Here’s what science says about some of them:
Poinsettias, those showy holiday plants with red and green foliage, are not nearly as harmful as a persistent myth says. Mild rashes from touching the plants or nausea from chewing or eating the leaves may occur but they aren’t deadly, for humans or their pets. Poinsettias belong to the same botanical family as rubber plants that produce latex, so some skin rashes occur in people allergic to latex. According to a Western Journal of Emergency Medicine research review, the plants’ toxic reputation “stems from a single unconfirmed death of a 2-year-old in Hawaii in 1919.”
Dr. Rachel Vreeman, an Indiana University pediatrician who has researched holiday myths, cited a study on more than 20,000 poison control center reports involving contact with poinsettias.
“In none of those cases were there deaths or serious injury. In fact, more than 95 percent of them required zero medical care,” she said.
The anglicized name comes from Joel Poinsett, a 19th century U.S. diplomat who brought the plant back from Mexico.
The white stuff
To form snowflakes, moisture high in the atmosphere is frozen by clinging to particles that may include dust specks or soot. Add germs to that list. University of Florida microbiologist Brent Christner has found that bacteria commonly found on plants are surprisingly abundant ice “nucleators” present in snow from populated areas, barren mountain peaks and even Antarctica.
So is catching snowflakes on your tongue a bad idea?
“There’s a yuck factor,” Christner said. “It’s better than yellow snow.”
He said the number of bacteria in snow would probably be about 100-fold less than in the same amount of bottled water.
“There are a lot more things to be worried about in making you sick than ingesting snowflakes,” he said.
The same things that can make holidays merry — great expectations and family time — can also be stressful. Holiday blues are a real thing for many people grieving loss or absence of a loved one, and wintertime can trigger true but transient depression in some people, a condition sometimes called seasonal affective disorder. It’s linked with lack of sunlight in winter and some scientists think affected people overproduce the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Research suggests it affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population and rates are higher in Scandinavia. But contrary to popular belief, suicides peak in springtime, not winter. No one has figured out why.
Hair of the dog
Forget that bloody mary. If extra shots of bourbon in your eggnog have you feeling lousy the next day, drinking more alcohol — hair of the dog — won’t cure you.
Here’s what George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, has to say about that:
“You are in a sense self-medicating a mild withdrawal syndrome by drinking more. The problem is that’s going to wear off and you’re going to have an even worse hangover.”
Alcohol is dehydrating so replenishing with lots of water or other non-alcoholic drinks can help relieve the symptoms. But experts emphasize that prevention is the healthiest cure.
Science behind hangovers: Effects of alcohol on brains and bodies
Says Koob: “It all boils down to, don’t drink too much.”
So what about that saying, “hair of the dog?” According to an old folk remedy, a dog bite could be cured by putting the animal’s hair in the wound.
Doughn’t eat it
Bakers beware: sampling holiday cookie dough, or any raw dough, can make you sick. And recent research says it’s not just because dough often contains raw eggs, which may harbor salmonella bacteria. Flour is another culprit. A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine details a 2016 E. coli outbreak that hit dozens of people in 24 states that was linked with flour. Some patients had eaten or handled raw dough made with flour contaminated with that bacteria. Authorities recalled 10 million pounds of flour, some of which had been sold to restaurants that allow children to play with raw dough while waiting for their meals. Baking generally kills any bacteria.
A headline on a Food and Drug Administration consumer update sums up the agency’s advice: “Raw dough’s a raw deal.”
New York City shop sells raw cookie dough without the risk
The truth about holiday weight gain depends on whether your Champagne glass is half empty or half full. One often-cited study says it’s commonly assumed that the average American gains 5 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But the study authors found the average was a little less than 1 pound. Other studies have found it’s closer to 2 pounds, still barely enough to make your pants feel tight. An extra piece of pie or one gigantic holiday feast won’t doom you, says Indiana University’s Vreeman. The problem, she says, is that the extra pound or two at holiday time becomes a pattern year after year and adds up.
Are poinsettias poisonous?
If you have avoided having poinsettias in your home because of small children or animals, you’re not alone. But despite the commonly held belief that poinsettias are toxic, they aren’t. This myth seems to have originated in 1919 with a misattributed poisoning of a child and perhaps persisted because several members of the same family as the flower are quite toxic.
Despite fears of poinsettia poisonings in over 22 thousand calls made to American Poison Control about children eating the red leaves, there wasn’t a single fatality. A 50 lb (22.68 kg) child would need to eat 500-600 leaves to exceed the doses that have been proven experimentally safe.
These leaves, however, aren’t meant for your salad, so eating even a couple can give you an upset stomach or cause vomiting. This is the reaction commonly seen in dogs and cats, but since these symptoms are mild, oftentimes no veterinarian care is required, although you should contact your vet if your pet is sick for more than a few hours.
The biggest risk comes from touching, rather than eating, the plant, as it produces latex from its stem (like thousands of other plants) that can cause skin or eye irritation in humans and non-humans alike.
Are poinsettias poisonous?
For many generations, holiday decorators have been warned, “Put your poinsettias out of reach — they’re poisonous.” As a result, countless children and plenty of pets have been shooed away from the plants and told the dangers of ingesting its bright foliage. But is it true that the poinsettia is poisonous, or is it simply one of the most misunderstood flowers on the planet?
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and “blooms” in late fall in its natural habitat, which is why many call it the Christmas flower. It’s not actually a bloom since the showy parts are not the flower, but people use the term nonetheless. As autumn draws to a close, artful arrangements of poinsettia plants announce the arrival of the holiday season in the U.S. and beyond.
Before we consider the poinsettia’s toxicity (or lack thereof), let’s review the parts of the plant:
- Dark green leaves at the base
- Brightly colored bracts (modified leaves) on top
- Flowers (yellow buds) at the center of the bract
The bracts, which are typically bright red, but may be white, yellow, pink or multicolored, are the parts for which the poinsettia is prized. The flower portion of the poinsettia plant is the cluster of small pollen-containing yellow buds at the center of the bracts . Among those who consider the plant poisonous, most believe it is the colored bracts that pose the greatest threat.
So, where did the poinsettia’s poisonous reputation come from? By most accounts, the myth began after a claim in 1919 that a small child’s death was caused by having eaten the red bracts of the plant . However, there is no evidence to suggest that the poinsettia can cause more than a stomachache if ingested.
There is evidence that clears the poinsettia’s tarnished reputation. A 1971 study found that high doses of poinsettia plants fed to rats caused no adverse effects, and subsequent similar studies have confirmed those findings . According to the National Capitol Poison Center, the toxicity of poinsettias is nothing more than a widely held, yet false, belief made stronger each year at Christmastime .
One fact that can’t be disputed about this fascinating flower is that it’s an economic powerhouse. Poinsettias are the best-selling plant in North America, with the majority sold in the six weeks leading up to Christmas .
Technically speaking, we should point out that poinsettias aren’t completely harmless. Like other nonfood items, they should not be eaten, as doing so is likely to cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Also, like its cousin the rubber tree plant, poinsettias contain a form of natural latex, so anyone with a latex allergy should avoid handling them .
In summary, the poinsettia is no more toxic than any garden-variety houseplant. However, despite evidence clearly vindicating the plant from any wrongdoing, people will probably continue to issue poinsettia-related warnings during the holiday season. It’s hard to recover from a bad reputation — even for a plant.
During the holidays, poinsettias are a popular Christmas plant. Though they have a bad rap, poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) plants are only mildly toxic to cats and dogs. The milky white sap found in poinsettias contains chemicals called diterpenoid euphorbol esters and saponin-like detergents. While poinsettias are commonly “hyped” as poisonous plants, they rarely are, and the poisoning is greatly exaggerated. When ingested, mild signs of vomiting, drooling, or rarely, diarrhea may be seen. If the milky sap is exposed to skin, dermal irritation (including redness, swelling, and itchiness) may develop. Rarely, eye exposure can result in mild irritation. Signs are generally self-limiting and typically don’t require medical treatment unless severe and persistent. There is no antidote for poinsettia poisoning. That said, due to the low level of toxicity seen with poinsettia ingestion, medical treatment is rarely necessary unless clinical signs are severe.
Common signs to watch for:
- Licking lips
- Skin irritation (including redness, swelling, and itchiness)
- Eye irritation
Pets will eat just about anything: shoes, grass, sticks, Amazon boxes, paychecks, Diet Coke cans — and that’s just what my own two dogs have gnawed on over the years. But cats and dogs’ adventurous tastes can prove especially worrisome around the holidays when you add Christmas decorations to the veritable buffet of inedible objects.
Mistletoe, holly, and Christmas trees (both real and fake) can all send your four-legged friends to the vet — and those bills from the 24-hour emergency vet will dampen your holiday cheer real fast.
ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center’s phone number is 1-888-426-4435.
“When you bring plants into the house, it’s important to know what you’re bringing in before an animal can get to it,” advises Dr. Tina Wismer, Medical Director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Poinsettias — a common fear among pet owners — actually prove less toxic than many other potted plants you’ll find this time of year.
Here’s what you need to keep an eye on between the eggnog drinking and cookie decorating.
While two mistletoe species exist, you’ll usually find the American kind dangling over your head at a holiday party. Unwanted smooches aside, the real problem is when sprigs end up on the floor within reach of pets.
Just one bite has the potential to make cats and dogs sick — usually in the form of vomiting followed by lethargy. If your pet vomits and you suspect poisoning from any kind of plant, take away food and water for a couple hours to let the stomach settle, advises Dr. Wismer. Continued vomiting means it’s time to see a veterinarian straight away.
Alvis UpitisGetty Images
“Holly can cause an issue two different ways,” says Dr. Wismer “First, if it has the little points on it, that can be very mechanically irritating to the stomach and cause vomiting. But the holly also does contain compounds called saponins, which are soap-like and cause severe stomach irritation.”
The combination can lead to blood in the vomit — a sure sign your dog or cat needs professional medical care. Vets can administer medications to stop the vomiting, provide IV fluids, or use “stomach protectors.” These drugs work twofold to reduce the acidity of the stomach and create a protective coating over irritated and ulcerated areas.
Pine, fir, or spruce, any evergreen contains small amounts of essential oils that makes it smell great but hard on an unsuspecting stomach. The real danger though is consuming a big volume. If your pet acquires a taste for trees (either real or fake), enough needles can form a wad in the GI tract and cause an obstruction.
Fortunately this is pretty rare — Dr. Wismer has only seen it five or six times in more than two decades of practicing — but it is life-threatening and will require surgery. To discourage your dogs from chewing on needles, skip food-based decorations like popcorn garlands and salt-dough ornaments. Cat owners, leave the long strands of tinsel in the box. The irresistible shiny-ness proves hard for feline to resist, and they can cause dangerous obstructions as well.
Picking out a pretty bouquet for someone on your wishlist? Think twice about sending one to a cat owner. The gorgeous white and stargazer lilies popular in floral arrangements this time of year prove especially toxic to felines.
Just brushing up against the plant and then grooming the pollen off can cause kidney failure, let alone taking an actual bite. Your best bet: Send a non-toxic Christmas cactus. The equally festive potted plant will last a lot longer than a week too.
The pretty blooms and tall slender stalks won’t send your pet to the hospital, but the bulbs will. Toxins in the parts below the dirt can cause vomiting with or without blood and potentially low blood pressure — necessitating a trip to the vet. While mild stomach upset is possible, you can rest easier if your pet just took a bite out of the flowers or leaves.
Ready for some the good news? The supposed toxicity of this Christmas classic is nothing more than an old wives’ tale, Dr. Wismer says. While eating a few leaves can cause mild stomach upset, the rumors of its fatal effects are overrated.
Your best bet in general: Leave Christmas flowers and plants in a separate, closed-off room until the holiday party starts.
Caroline Picard Health Editor Caroline is the Health Editor at GoodHousekeeping.com covering nutrition, fitness, wellness, and other lifestyle news.
The Myth of the Poisonous Poinsettia
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are a popular Christmas decoration because their leaves turn a brilliant red during the plant’s flowering period, November through March. Millions of them are sold each year. Over 34 million, in fact. They account for one quarter of the annual sales of all flowering potted plants.
But when people purchase a poinsettia, are they bringing a potentially deadly threat into their homes in the guise of a beautiful plant? Are poinsettias actually highly poisonous? For decades, many people have believed this to be so. “One poinsettia leaf can kill a child,” is a warning that has been repeated often over the years.
However, this belief in the deadly poison of the poinsettia is entirely a myth. The truth is that poinsettias have low toxicity. Which is not to say that the plant is edible. It definitely isn’t. (Don’t serve poinsettias in a salad!) But there’s never been a documented case of death by poinsettia. Almost all cases of poinsettia ingestion result in no effect at all. In a few instances, people might experience an upset stomach.
A slightly more common negative reaction is that some people develop a skin irritation after coming into contact with the plant’s milky white sap, such as if a child rubs a poinsettia leaf against his face. But again, it’s nothing serious. Washing the affected area usually resolves the problem.
Nevertheless, belief in the poisonous poinsettia is widespread and persistent. The AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants notes that poinsettias are consistently among the top eight plants that people call poison control centers about. The authors of a 1996 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine counted 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposure reported to poison control centers between the years 1985 to 1992. Most of these cases were panicked parents worried because their child had just eaten a poinsettia leaf. (The authors of this study also note a peculiar subset of cases — 27 people who tried to commit suicide by eating poinsettias.) In every instance of poinsettia ingestion, the patient survived. In fact, in only 6 percent of the tens of thousands of cases did the person experience any negative symptoms at all.
Origin of the MythSo if poinsettias are not poisonous, where did the idea that they are come from?
One theory is that the belief stems from the similarity between the words ‘poinsettia’ and ‘poison.’ That similarity is purely coincidental. The plant is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who’s credited with introducing the poinsettia to the U.S. in the early nineteenth century.
Another possibility is that it’s guilt by association. Several other popular Christmas plants, holly and mistletoe, are genuinely poisonous. So people might make the assumption that if those floral mainstays of the holiday season are toxic, then the fiery red leaves of the poinsettia must be a danger as well.
However, the most direct inspiration for the widespread myth traces back to a rumor that surfaced in 1919, alleging that a child in Hawaii had died after eating a poinsettia leaf. The death was pure hearsay. No child had actually died. Or at least, no child had died from eating a poinsettia. However, the rumor of the death was heard and believed by several medical professionals in Hawaii, and through them the story was transmitted to the broader scientific community.
As a result, many health professionals came to believe that poinsettias were poisonous, and they periodically warned the public about the danger posed by the plant. They did this with the best of intentions, but their facts were based on nothing more than a rumor. One doctor, at a 1970 meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, even expanded the story of the 1919 fatality into a claim that there had been reports of “convulsions and bleeding into the brain” caused by poinsettias.
In other words, it’s hard to blame the press or general public for believing that poinsettias are poisonous since for decades doctors were telling people exactly this.
Chicago Tribune – Nov 19, 1970
It wasn’t until 1971 that the scientific community fully became aware of its error. In this year, researchers at Ohio State University published the first study of poinsettia toxicity. The Ohio researchers fed “extraordinarily high doses” of ground up poinsettias to one hundred and sixty rats and found “no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity nor any changes in dietary intake or general behavior pattern.”
The Ohio study was partially paid for by the Society of American Florists which was eager to give poinsettias a clean bill of health since belief in the plant’s toxicity was beginning to cut into sales.
All subsequent poinsettia studies have agreed with the results of this first study. The plant is not poisonous.
Since 1971, scientists have gone to some lengths to try to restore the poinsettia’s damaged reputation. For instance, in 1974 the Canadian horticulturist John Bradshaw ate poinsettia leaves in front of members of the press to prove that he wouldn’t die, or even get sick. However, old beliefs die hard. To this day, many people continue to believe that poinsettias are poisonous.
Below is a more detailed timeline of some of the major events in the history of the myth of the poisonous poinsettia.
The Poisonous Poinsettia Timeline 1825: Joel R. Poinsett, American Ambassador to Mexico, introduces the poinsettia to the United States.
1898: A U.S. Dept. of Agriculture report, Principal Poisonous Plants of the United States, by V.K. Chestnut, includes a brief anecdotal report stating that gardeners had sometimes been poisoned while trimming cultivated poinsettias.
1920: The botanist Joseph Francis Rock publishes an article (“The Poisonous Plants of Hawaii”) in The Hawaiian Forester and Agriculturist (March 1920), in which he states that a child had died on Kauai as a result of “sucking freshly cut stems of the Poinsettia.”
1944: The Honolulu physician Harry Loren Arnold publishes Poisonous Plants of Hawaii, in which he repeats the story that a child had died as a result of poinsettia poisoning. But he adds more details, claiming that a “two-year-old child of an Army officer at Fort Shafter died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919.” This has the effect of enhancing the story’s believability. Arnold’s book was reprinted in 1968 and, probably more than any other source, helped to spread the idea that poinsettias are poisonous. When contacted by Ohio State University researchers in 1970 for more details about the death of the two-year-old child, Arnold admitted that the story was just hearsay.
Excerpt from Arnold’s Poisonous Plants of Hawaii
1959-1964: For over five years, Sidney Kaufer, a Belmar, New Jersey pharmacist, conducts a kind of one-man mission to spread the word about the danger posed by poinsettias (as well as other Christmas plants such as mistletoe). He travels the East Coast, delivering a presentation titled “Guarding Against Accidental Poisoning” at schools and in front of civic groups. His talk includes the warning that “They are beautiful and have a pleasant smell, but the mistletoe berry and poinsettia leaf contain enough poison to kill you.”
1965: Plant biologist John Kingsbury publishes Deadly Harvest: A Guide to Common Poisonous Plants, which includes the warning that “poinsettia has been responsible for deaths among children.”
1969: Dr. Hollis S. Ingraham, New York State Health Commissioner, issues a press release warning the public of hazards around the house at Christmastime, including “toxic leaves from poinsettia plants.” He repeats the warning in December 1970.
Chicago Tribune – Nov 19, 1970
1970: At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held in San Francisco, Dr. Charles A. Greene of Creighton University School of Medicine displays more than two dozen common household and garden plants, which he warns can be poisonous if eaten. Among the plants he displays are poinsettias, which he states can trigger fatal convulsions and severe gastro-intestinal symptons. He notes, “We’ve had reports of neurological fatalities because of convulsions and bleeding into the brain.”
1970: The Food and Drug Administration issues a press release warning gardeners and householders against the hazards of potential poisoning from common decorative plants, such as the castor bean, jequirity bean, and poinsettia. It notes, “One poinsettia leaf can kill a child.”
1971: Ohio State University researchers Robert Stone and W.J. Collins publish a study in the journal Toxicon reporting no symptoms of toxicity in rats fed “extraordinarily high doses” of ground-up poinsettias. This study, partially funded by the Society of American Florists, turns the tide against the belief that poinsettias are poisonous.
1974: Canadian horticulturist John Bradshaw eats the leaves of a poinsettia “with seeming pleasure” before an assembly of the press in order to prove that the plant isn’t poisonous.
Bradshaw eating a poinsettia. Source: archeion.ca
NY Times – Dec 10, 1975
1975: Robert Boehler of Kenmore, New York files a petition with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, asking the Commission to require labels be put on poinsettias, identifying them as poisonous and warning consumers to keep them out of the reach of children. Boehler cites the information that a single poinsettia leaf, if ingested, could kill a child. In an interview, Boehler concedes that he has no special expertise in the matter, but says, “These things are sold in retail stores without any warning at all and brought home and put in places where small kids are. I’ve often wondered why no one did anything about it.” So he decided to take matters into his own hands. The Commission denies the petition, but issues a statement noting that, “The Commission does not intend that denial of this petition be construed as endorsement of the complete safety of these plants.”
1980: A North Carolina county reportedly bans poinsettias from nursing homes.
1982: the National Poison Control Center Network publishes an information bulletin on holiday hazards in which it notes that although eating poinsettia leaves may cause an upset stomach, studies suggest no alarming level of toxicity.
Ann Landers column – Mar 11, 1987
1987: Ann Landers prints a letter from “Too Late for Me in Poughkeepsie” whose cat “Chow Chow” had recently died. The correspondent says that a veterinarian identified eating poinsettias, present in the house since Christmas, as the likely cause of death. Ann Landers thanks the correspondent for sharing the story and “giving me the opportunity to sound the warning” about poinsettias. In a subsequent column, two months later, Landers corrects the misinformation, thanking “all the florists who wrote.”
1988: Dear Abby (aka Pauline Phillips, twin sister of Ann Landers) debunks the poisonous poinsettia myth in her column, noting, “after years of being maligned, bad-mouthed and discriminated against, the beautiful poinsettia plant rates a clean bill of health.”
1993: The Society of American Florists commissions a poll of 1000 Americans which finds that 53 percent of those polled mistakenly believed poinsettias to be toxic. The Society issues a press release which seeks to correct the misinformation. It notes that POISINDEX, the national poison information system for poison control centers, had found that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 poinsettia leaves in order to exceed experimental doses that found no toxicity. (It’s not entirely clear where POISINDEX got those figures from, although they’ve been widely quoted since the late 1980s. Presumably they didn’t feed 500 poinsettia leaves to a child. The numbers seem to be an extrapolation from the amount of poinsettias fed to rats in the 1971 Ohio State University study.)
Advertisement in the Standard-Speaker (Hazelton, PA) – Nov 24, 1990
1996: Pittsburgh-based researchers Edward Krenzelok, T.D. Jacobsen, and John Aronis publish an article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine in which they report that after reviewing 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposure brought to the attention of poison centers they found no poinsettia-related fatalities. Furthermore, “The outcome in 92.4% of the exposures was no effect or unknown nontoxic effect.”
Celebrations Urban Legends
Posted on Wed Dec 10, 2014
Are poinsettias or any other holiday plants poisonous?
Contrary to a stubborn myth, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans. Consuming a large amount of any plant can cause cramping and diarrhea, but no one has ever died or become seriously ill from eating poinsettias. Your pets, however, may have a bad reaction if they munch on these plants, so you’d be wise to keep them out of Fido’s range.
The plant to really beware of this season is mistletoe. Standing under mistletoe may earn you the pleasure of a kiss or two, but ingesting the stuff will cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea and can even be fatal. If you decide to hang a sprig over your doorway, make sure it’s secured well and that it won’t be knocked to the floor where a pet or young child could happen upon it.
Holly and pyracantha (also known as firethorn), both of which are frequently used in holiday decorations, are toxic as well — keep them out of reach.
If you suspect poisoning from a plant or any other source, call the national emergency hotline of the American Association of Poison Control Centers at (800) 222-1222, which will automatically redirect you to a local poison control center. Add the number to the list of emergency contacts by your telephone.
If your child is very young, keep in mind that even plants that aren’t poisonous can present other types of hazards. The soil in potted plants, for instance, may contain toxic fertilizer or rocks that are just the right size for choking. And a plant in a heavy pot could injure your child if it fell on him.
Never place a plant on a stand that could be toppled by a determined climber. And watch out for dangling leaves or vines that your child could use to pull a large plant on top of himself.
Find out more about keeping your child safe around plants.
Claim: Poinsettia plants are poisonous to humans.
Origins: Have you ever read a warning like the following?
Don’t ever let your kids eat the poinsettias! They are deadly poisonous, and every year several poor unsuspecting little ones are killed at Christmastime by taking just the slightest nibble from a poinsettia plant.
Scary stuff. Luckily for us, it’s not true. It’s a wonderfully persistent myth though, and it seems to have arisen from a long-ago death of a child’s being attributed to the wrong cause. According to Ecke Poinsettia Growers: “The poinsettia poison myth had its origin in 1919 when a
two-year-old child of an Army officer stationed in Hawaii died of poisoning, and the cause was incorrectly assumed to be a poinsettia leaf.”
Since that non-poinsettia death in 1919, there haven’t been any real ones either. And no wonder: a 50 lb. child would have to eat more than 1.25 lbs. of poinsettia bracts (about 500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses, according to the POISINDEX Information Service. (POISINDEX is the primary resource used by most poison control centers.) Further, the American Medical Association’s Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants lists nothing more than occasional vomiting as a side effect of ingesting otherwise harmless poinsettia leaves. And in 1975 the Consumer Products Safety Commission cited lack of substantial evidence in its decision to deny a petition requiring warning labels for poinsettias. (Perhaps the confused warnings came about because the genus to which the poinsettia belongs — Euphorbia — includes several plants that are toxic.) The Floridata web site also addresses this legend on their page about poinsettias:
Every holiday season newspapers run stories about whether or not Poinsettia is toxic and to what degree. Although many species in the genus Euphorbia are highly toxic, poinsettia is not among them. Having said that, ingestion of this plant probably will make you sick (it just won’t kill you).
The Minnesota Poison Control System concurs, saying in its FAQ:
The fact is that they are not poisonous. Nor are they edible and it can be expected that, when eaten in quantity, they may cause stomach upset with possible vomiting. This may happen when an overactive puppy devours an entire plant. In the case of a child who eats a single leaf, no ill effects would be expected.
Even with all that to dissuade anyone from believing in poisonous poinsettias, this is still a tenacious legend. Nearly 66% of those participating in a 1995 Society of American Florists poll still believed poinsettias toxic if eaten. A 1994 survey of 1,000 Americans by Bruskin/Goldring Research for the Society of American Florists showed that 42% of the males polled and
57% of the females polled also thought that.
Thom David, marketing manager of the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California, has a way of convincing people otherwise, though. He’s been known to grab a few bracts off the nearest poinsettia plant and eat them in front of persistent disbelievers. Seems to work, too — they don’t doubt him after that.
Speaking from “bitter” experience, he says it’s unlikely a kid or an animal will eat more than one bite. He describes the taste as far worse than the most bitter radicchio. Frankly, he says, the flavor is indescribably awful.
Even if poinsettia is awful to eat, it’s still nice to look at. The plant was named after Joel Robert Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico. In 1829 Poinsett was so impressed with the brilliant red “flowers” that he sent some home from Mexico to South Carolina, where they did very well in Poinsett’s greenhouse. Poinsettias are also called the “flower of the Holy Night” because their red bracts are said to represent the flaming Star of Bethlehem.
Mexican legend has it that the poinsettia originated in a miracle. Having nothing to offer Christ on his birthday, a poor child gathered weeds into the form of a bouquet. Upon approaching the altar, the weeds transformed into brilliant red blooms. (Another version of this tale has the poor child’s sadness causing the colorful plant to spring from the ground at his feet.) The product of a miracle, the poinsettia’s colorful bracts became known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
Last updated: 30 July 2007
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Mexican Pet.
New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. ISBN 0-393-30542-2 (pp. 91-92).
Coffin, Tristram. The Book of Christmas Folklore.
New York: Seabury Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8164-9158-5 (p. 22-23). Palamuso, Jeanne. “The Book on Poinsettias.”
Buffalo News. 13 December 1996 (p. 13B). Varkonyi, Charlyne. “Red in the Face.”
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 13 December 1996 (p. E1).
Also told in:
The Big Book of Urban Legends.
New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 83).
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Toxicity Of Poinsettias: Are Poinsettia Plants Poisonous
Are poinsettia plants poisonous? If so, exactly what part of poinsettia is poisonous? It’s time to separate fact from fiction and get the scoop on this popular holiday plant.
Poinsettia Plant Toxicity
Here’s the real truth about the toxicity of poinsettias: You can relax and enjoy these gorgeous plants in your home, even if you have pets or young children. Although the plants aren’t for eating and they might cause an unpleasant upset tummy, it has been proven time and time again that poinsettias are NOT poisonous.
According to University of Illinois Extension, rumors regarding the toxicity of poinsettias have circulated for nearly 80 years, long before the advent of the Internet rumor mills. University of Illinois Extension’s website reports the results of studies conducted by a number of reliable sources, including UI’s Department of Entomology.
The findings? Test subjects (rats) displayed absolutely no adverse effects – no symptoms or behavioral changes, even when they were fed large amounts of various parts of the plant.
The United States Consumer Product Safety commission agrees with UI’s findings, and if that’s not proof enough, a study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported no fatalities in more than 22,000 accidental ingestions of poinsettia plants, nearly all of which involved young children. Similarly, Web MD notes that “There haven’t been any deaths reported due to eating poinsettia leaves.”
Not Toxic, But…
Now that we’ve dispelled the myths and established the truth about poinsettia plant toxicity, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. While the plant isn’t considered toxic, it still shouldn’t be eaten and large amounts may cause stomach upset to dogs and cats, according to the Pet Poison Hotline. Also, the fibrous leaves may present a choking danger in young children or small pets.
Lastly, the plant exudes a milky sap, which may cause redness, swelling and itching in some people.