For years we were warned that poinsettias – those beautiful red, white and pink flowering plants we display at Christmas time – were poisonous. Parents, magazines, medical books and guides, and even doctors and veterinarians cautioned us to keep the beautiful plants out of the reach of children and pets for fear that they might nibble on the flowers or the leaves which were believed to be toxic. In fact, some books still indicate poinsettias are poisonous. Thanks to more recent testing, however, it is no longer necessary to keep your beautiful poinsettia plants out of reach. The long-standing belief that poinsettias were poisonous has finally been proved to be nothing more than a myth – a false alarm.
According to a source at the Poison Control Center in Madison, Wisconsin, most of the fear originated from the death of one child in Hawaii in 1918 who was believed to have eaten a poinsettia plant. However, experts are no longer sure this death really had anything to do with the ornamental plant. In fact, a research study conducted at Ohio State University in more recent years reveals that poinsettias are not truly poisonous at all. The study conclusively proved that all parts of the plant are non-toxic. Today the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, DC and poison control centers across the country list the poinsettia as a non-poisonous plant.
According to the Madison Poison Control Center, a 50-pound child would need to ingest 500-600 poinsettia leaves to suffer ill effects of any significance – which is highly unlikely to occur. Of course, minor gastrointestinal upset may occur if a child or pet consumes the leaves, as with the consumption of any non-food product, but the plant is not a deadly poison as previously thought and will not kill a child or animal. In the worst-case scenario, the child or pet could have an upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea – all treatable using over-the-counter products.
This was further confirmed when the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Melon University conducted a study of almost 23,000 poinsettia exposures reported to poison control centers across the country and found that none presented evidence of actual toxicity.
Playing with the leaves could cause local minor skin irritation in humans, and children who play with the leaves and then rub their eyes could experience redness and irritation of the eyes. To prevent further irritation, eyes should be rinsed with lukewarm water for 10-15 minutes, and hands or body parts irritated by the plant should be washed well with soap and water.
However, ingesting poinsettias is not shown to cause severe stomach upset, convulsions, or other symptoms requiring emergency care. Probably the greatest threat the plants pose is the potential to obstruct a child or pet’s airway, causing choking.
This holiday season, everyone can sit back and enjoy the beauty of poinsettia plants without a worry. Caution should be exercised with other ornamental holiday plants and even some normal houseplants, however. Just because the poinsettia has been “cleared” doesn’t mean all other plants are just as safe. Various parts of some plants – including holly, mistletoe, English ivy, azaleas, rhododendrons, philodendron, and others – can cause severe reactions and may be fatal. If in doubt, check it out. Better to be safe than sorry!