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Deadly poinsettia? Don’t believe it

Debunking a myth about favorite holiday plant

Blythe Flowers owner Tina Davis arranges a display of poinsettias at the Ottawa florist shop. Davis said a common misconception is that poinsettias are deadly to children and pets — while mildly toxic, there are no recorded deaths caused by ingestion.
Blythe Flowers owner Tina Davis arranges a display of poinsettias at the Ottawa florist shop. Davis said a common misconception is that poinsettias are deadly to children and pets — while mildly toxic, there are no recorded deaths caused by ingestion.

Tina Davis loves it when she hears, "I'd love to buy a poinsettia for Christmas, but aren't they poisonous?'

Davis, who owns Blythe Flowers in Ottawa, appreciates any opportunity to set the poinsettia record straight. She knows all about them and other plants and flowers.

“I'm always happy to answer questions about any plant or flower,” Davis said. “And yes, the question of poinsettias being poisonous comes up very often. The answer is no, they are not poisonous.”

It's a myth that got its start in 1919. The 2-year-old child of an Army officer stationed in Hawaii died of poisoning, incorrectly assumed to be from a poinsettia leaf (actually called a bract). There haven't been any recorded deaths from poinsettias since.

Because of the poisonous myth, the poinsettia is the most tested plant on the market. Ohio State University has conducted scientific research that included the testing all the plant's parts, including leaves and white sap. The results show the myth just that — a false story.

The national information center for Poison Control Centers notes that a child would have to consume 500 to 600 leaves (bracts) to exceed experimental doses that found no toxicity.

“Of course, the poinsettia isn't meant to be eaten,” Davis said. “If a child or a cat do eat the bracts, they might feel nauseated and vomit, so the best thing to do is keep the plants away from them.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does caution that the holiday favorite is mildly toxic to pets, primarily dogs, cats and horses. The sap can irritate a pet's mouth and stomach, "sometimes causing vomiting, but generally over-rated in toxicity," according to the ASPCA toxic plants listing.

“Christmas (and Mother's Day) are our busiest seasons,” Davis continued. “Poinsettias are our most popular plants, of course, but amaryllis bulbs are also a favorite, along with wreaths.”

How about other holiday plants?

Holly plants, their berries and mistletoe can be poisonous to animals. If a cat chews or ingests English holly, the prickly leaves could cause severe gastrointestinal problems to the cat's sensitive digestive tract.

If you stand under hanging mistletoe, you might be kissed, but remember to stay away from the berries. While many experts believe all parts of this plant can be toxic, the berries pose the biggest danger. The plant contains harmful chemicals (viscotoxins) that can cause gastrointestinal problems or a slowed heartbeat.

In case studies regarding accidental consumption, no deaths were recorded and only a few resulted in severe reactions. A 1996 published study of 92 cases of accidental mistletoe consumption reported only a few people showed any toxic symptoms. Eight out of 10 people who ate five or more berries had no symptoms; three of 11 people who only ate the leaves experienced upset stomachs.

Poinsettia facts

Joel Roberts Poinsett introduced the poinsettia to the United States from Mexico. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He sent cuttings of the plant he had discovered in southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, S.C. Dec. 12 is Poinsettia Day, which marks Poinsett's death in 1851.

In Mexico, the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that will grow 10 to 15 feet tall.

Poinsettias contribute over $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level. California is the top U.S. poinsettia-producing state.

Poinsettias are the most popular Christmas plant. Most poinsettias are sold within a six-week period leading up to the holiday, representing some $60 million worth.

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