Poinsettia Myths and Lore


Picking up where I left off on Monday, I wanted first to dispel a very common myth: poinsettias are NOT–repeat not–poisonous.  You need not worry about children in any respect.

Pets are a different matter–dogs, and to a greater extent, cats, can be bothered and made ill from this plant–if they bother it to eat it, that is. You know your own pets and their inclinations.  If you have a cat–or a dog, for that matter–that likes to eat plants, best to skip this one.

While it is admirable to want to keep children and pets safe, chances are the homeowner already has poisonous plants in the home and isn’t aware of it–so many house plants are toxic even at small doses.

Worse yet, landscape plants are highly toxic and some of the most common like rhododendrons, azalea, yew and holly (we’ll get back to that in a minute) are highly toxic even in minute amounts.  But no one thinks to tell homeowners with children and dogs not to plant those or to keep the children and pets away from those–except perhaps at this time of year.

But back to the poinsettia.  I don’t quite know how this myth got started except for the fact that poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family and that family has irritating sap.  So if you are allergic to the sap–or chew enough leaves–there can be some irritation of the mouth or some contact dermatitis on your skin.

I can tell you I have the most sensitive skin known to humankind–and the sap has never bothered me–so it must be like poison ivy–you have to have a lot of exposure to it to be irritated or something.

But please–don’t take my word for the “poinsettias are not poisonous” idea.  Read more about it here from Snopes, the urban legends reference pages.  They also have some great reference material from leading university agricultural departments there as well and some of the lore as well (in more detail than I have here.)

As for other holiday plants to avoid, however, if you have children and pets, you will want to avoid the aforementioned holly.  All parts are highly poisonous and the berries are particularly attractive to them.

While we’re on song titles, avoid the ivy that goes with the holly as well.  It too can be toxic.

And not to be a drag, but don’t hang any mistletoe–at least not the real kind. Its berries can be fatal if swallowed.  I’ve found some lovely glass ornaments that I’ve subbed in for the real, and even a cut paper variety.  They also make some realistic looking silk ones. Don’t take a chance on the real stuff–it’s not worth it.

So deck the halls with poinsettia all you like–just avoid some of the more  innocuous other toxic holiday plants!

As for lore, there is actually a day dedicated to poinsettias.  It is December 12, the birthday of the US Ambassador, Poinsett, who brought the flowers back and introducted them the US.

There’s also a Mexican legend about an impoverished child who had nothing to offer the Christ child on Christmas.  I’ll let you read more about both these stories here.

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