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How poinsettias got a bad rap
Scripps Howard News Service


December 12, 2005

Joel Roberts Poinsett - congressman, planter, diplomat and botanist that he was - certainly never intended to poison anyone.

After bringing several specimens back from Mexico, where he had served as the first U.S. ambassador to the newly independent country, he shared distinctive plants with red flowers among his friends and neighbors in Greenville, S.C.

jog poinsettias

Later, as the festive plant became more popular, horticulturalist William Prescott gave Euphorbia pulcherrima a new name, poinsettia. Back a few years ago, Congress designated the anniversary of Poinsett's death on Dec. 12, 1851, conveniently falling so near Christmas, as National Poinsettia Day.

By the end of the 19th century, greenhouses all around the United States were growing the plants, both as a holiday decoration and as a landscaping plant in warmer places like Florida and California.

But more than half a century after Poinsett's death, the story began circulating that a toddler died after eating a few leaves from a poinsettia, and the plant's poisonous reputation was born.

Several studies done over the past several decades, including one extensive test at Ohio State University, have given poinsettia leaves the all-clear as a toxin, yet a survey done in the mid-1990s for the Society of American Florists found half of all Americans still think the holiday icons are poisonous.

"The researchers at OSU tested the effects of eating unusually high doses of every part, from roots to sap," said Karen Gast, a research horticulturalist at Kansas State University. "Their results indicated that a 50 pound child could eat 500 to 600 poinsettia leaves and not show any signs of poisoning."

David Trinklein, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Missouri, said, "There are a lot of things that we drag into the house at Christmas that are quite toxic. We don't think about it much because no myths surround mistletoe, which is actually quite toxic. Ivy leaves, from the holly and ivy, are somewhat toxic. Yet, it is the poinsettia that has the reputation for being a sinister plant at Christmastime."

Holly berries can also cause vomiting and cramping, and all parts of the Jerusalem or Christmas cherry are toxic, particularly leaves and berries. Of course, even Christmas trees can cause respiratory problems for people with certain allergies - and evergreens often play host to poison ivy vines, a particular concern for cut-your-own tree families.

Trinklein warns that some people should still be careful handling poinsettias, because if a leaf is broken, it exudes a white latex substance that can cause a problem for people with latex allergies.

And Gast warns that no matter how safe a plant is, colorful flowers and berries can attract young children, some of whom will put most anything in their mouths, even if it tastes nasty. "To err on the side of safety, I wouldn't give or use these plants as a holiday decoration if a youngster can gain access to them," she said.


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