Every year at this time the news is full of “toxic holiday plants” articles, with poinsettias prominently mentioned. It’s presented as established fact that eating even a small amount of the plant can be fatal to children or pets. But that’s wrong. Poinsettias will not poison your loved ones. And the reason is that they have an absolutely horrible taste.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are in the euphorbia family. These plants have a milky latex running through the stems and leaves. This latex tastes awful, so bitter it’s hard to believe any living creature would willingly eat more than one leaf. Eating any part of the plant can give someone an upset stomach, and cause nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. Not direly so, but enough to keep you from going back for seconds.
And it tastes awful for a reason: It’s a form of self-protection. Many nasty-tasting plants contain toxic compounds, designed to keep insects and animals from eating them. A plant can’t just get up and walk away when threatened, so some develop their own form of self-defense. The bad flavor is a warning: Keep eating and you’re going to get sick.
The myth that poinsettias are poisonous if eaten is so entrenched that over the years the floral industry has tested and retested the plant to prove it is not. According to the Society of American Florists: “Research trials at Ohio State University revealed that a pet or child would need to ingest more than 500 leaves to become seriously ill.”
That said, no one is suggesting serving poinsettia canapes. Eating any part of an ornamental plant is never a good idea.
What the latex in poinsettias can do, however, is cause a person’s skin to have an allergic reaction, especially anyone with a latex allergy.
Poinsettias are a shrub, native to Mexico. They can grow eight to twelve feet tall. The English name, poinsettia, is in honor of the botanist and first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett.
In the wild, the plants have the red “petals” we identify with poinsettias. Over the years breeders have expanded their color range to include white, cream, yellow, shades of pink, and even variegation. However, these colorful “petals” are really bracts. The true flowers are those tiny yellow nuggets in the center.
So don’t forego a lovely holiday plant because of an outdated belief. Poinsettias won’t harm pets or children. And they’re so festive, it wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
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