Pity the poor poinsettia. All it ever wanted was to be a nice emblem for the holidays: To be patiently wrapped in red foil and hoisted on hostesses, to festoon festive Christmas sweaters, and to be eternally mimicked in plastic. But somewhere along the way it picked up a bad-girl reputation as a lethal beauty; lovely to look at, and terribly toxic if tasted!
But, are the rumors true? Are pretty poinsettias potentially poisonous? About 70 percent of the population will answer yes, and although every year there is a bumper crop of stories explaining otherwise–the myth persists. And myth it is. Poinsettia’s are not poisonous, merely the victim of a popularly enduring urban legend.
It all started back in the early part of the 20th century when the young child of a U.S. Army officer was alleged to have died from consuming a poinsettia leaf–a story which was later retracted. But as these things have a habit of doing, the toxic potential of the poinsettia took on a life of its own; now many people treat poinsettias as persona non grata (or, poinsettia non grata, as the case may be) in their households.
According to the American Medical Association’s Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, other than occasional cases of vomiting, ingestion of the poinsettia plant has been found to produce no ill effect. And other experts have weighed in as well.
The Society of American Florists (SAF) worked with the Academic Faculty of Entomology at Ohio State University (OSU) to thoroughly test all parts of the poinsettia and conclusively established that there were no adverse effects; and the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission denied a petition in 1975 to require warning labels for poinsettia plants.
As for your pets, the American Veterinary Medicine Association of America (AVMA), does not include poinsettias on its list of plants that are a threat to animals. The ASPCA states that ingestion of poinsettias may cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal tract irritation, which may include drooling, vomiting and/or diarrhea–but nothing severe or fatal.
Mistletoe, on the other hand? Not so innocent. Mistletoe may inspire spontaneous smooching, as well as gastrointestinal distress, a slowed heartbeat and other reactions if ingested due to the presence of harmful chemicals like viscotoxins. Although not thought to be fatal, it can cause severe reactions. In pets, mistletoe may cause astrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular collapse, dyspnea, bradycardia, erratic behavior, vomiting, diarrhea, and low blood pressure. Ouch! So keep the mistletoe securely fastened above your door, but fear the poinsettia no more.