As every year comes to a close, persistent rumors make their annual appearance regarding the lethality of the common holiday plant, the Poinsettia. While largely overblown, there are other common seasonal decorative plants that are far more of a hazard to your 2- and 4- legged charges.
While Poinsettias are one of the most frequent targets of these holiday season warnings, the hazard they pose to children and pets is actually not that significant – especially when compared to other seasonal plants often used for home decoration.
Article written and researched by David M. White
While children in any number of countries and faiths look forward to the Christmas holiday in December, a large number of adults get into the holiday spirit by decorating their homes – often using live plants and flowers as part of the holiday theme. One of the most popular plants used, especially in North America, is the Poinsettia. Native to Mexico and Central America, it was first imported to the US in 1825 from Mexico, where it has been associated with Christmas since the 1500’s.
As popular as the Poinsettia is, there has been a persistent rumor circulating since the early 1900’s that they are deadly toxic. This myth apparently began with the unfortunate death of the 2 year old daughter of a US Army officer stationed in Hawaii in 1918. Based on mere speculation that she might have eaten a Poinsettia leaf, and the lack of any subsequent Poinsettia related deaths in the 94 years following that incident, common sense should relegate this one to the hoax bin. We should, however, note that people, and pets, can be sensitive to the milky sap of the Poinsettia. Specifically, people with sensitivity to latex will likely find they are sensitive to Poinsettia sap.
Obviously, eating the leaves of your house plants isn’t generally advised , but those of us with pets and kids know that they can be prone to do things that make grown-ups scratch their heads. But never fear – while it may give them an upset stomach, the chances of it causing significant damage are rather thin. Poison control centers estimate that even a child would have to ingest over 500 leaves before suffering any significant distress… which might be more related to eating several hundred leaves as much as what the leaves were from, come to think of it.
Probably the most definitive assessment as to the relative danger posed by Poinsettias was carried out at Ohio State University, where “…rats were fed large amounts of various parts of the Poinsettia plant. None of the rats showed any signs of illness–no changes in behavior, appetite, body weight gain, etc.”
Last word on the subject would be from a study conducted by the Pittsburgh Poison Center, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and the Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, which reported “Poinsettia exposures accounted for 22,793 cases and formed the subset that was analyzed to critically evaluate the morbidity and mortality associated with poinsettia exposures. There were no fatalities among all poinsettia exposures and 98.9% were accidental in nature, with 93.3% involving children. The majority of exposed patients (96.1%) were not treated in a health care facility and 92.4% did not develop any toxicity related to their exposure to the poinsettia.”
Having dispensed with the Poinsettia myth, we would be remiss to not mention that there are a other flowers and plants used in holiday decorations that present a much more serious hazard to children and pets.
Mistletoe can pose a much more significant hazard to pets, although European versions tend to be more toxic than North American varieties, and even the type of tree it is found on (mistletoe is essentially a parasite) will affect toxicity. For humans, it can certainly cause some discomfort, but research indicates the fear that you’re hanging a death trap from your door frame is a bit misplaced. And while the usual anecdotal reports vary from one to the next as to whether it’s the berries or the leaves and stems that pose the greatest hazard, the research indicates both can cause a reaction, but (with humans at least) it’s not at all likely to be lethal.
Holly sprigs are another popular decoration, and while few children would be prone to try and eat one of their prickly leaves, the bright red berries might be a bit more tempting for kids and pets alike. While it is commonly acknowledged to be toxic to pets, the common belief that ingesting as few as 20 berries may be lethal for children might be a bit overly cautious. While there are reports of fatalities in older literature, there are no recent reports of severe poisonings. Still, it would be something to be more careful with than Poinsettias.
Bottom line: decorate to your heart’s content. Just use a little common sense in where you put certain types of plants if you have small children or pets that might be tempted to have a little taste test.
Article written and researched by David M. White