According to a recent national poll, half of all Americans surveyed believed that poinsettias are poisonous. In fact, no other consumer plant has been as widely tested as the poinsettia.
Let me set the record straight. THEY ARE NOT!!!
Researchers at the Ohio State University measured the effects of ingesting unusually large doses of all parts of the plant (including the leaves, stems and sap) and found the plant to be non-toxic. And, according to POISINDEX, the information resource used by the majority of U.S. poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity.
That’s not to say you should eat a poinsettia, though. Like other non-food items, if ingested it may cause some stomach discomfort, but nothing more. And if you are highly allergic to latex, the substance that oozes from the stems, you should avoid poinsettias at all costs.
Now, if Americans aren’t getting this misinformation from science journals, where is it coming from? Well, most people who believe poinsettias are toxic say they learned it “word-of-mouth.” I think maybe it’s been perpetuated by veterinarians, too. In fact, vets are correct to warn pet owners that latex is dangerous for small animals. But it seems pet owners then mistakenly re-apply the warning to humans.
The original source of the myth may be a rumor that has continued to circulate since 1919. The story goes that an Army officer’s two-year-old child allegedly died after eating a poinsettia leaf. While never proved by medical or scientific fact, and later determined to be hearsay, the story has taken a life of its own.
Defenders of the poinsettia have pulled out all scientific stops to allay public fears. The Society of American Florists worked with the Academic Faculty of Entomology at OSU to exhaustively test all parts of the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). OSU researchers established that rats exhibited no adverse effects — no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity and no changes in dietary intake or general behavior patterns — when given even unusually large amounts of different poinsettia parts. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission accepts the animal tests as valid indicators whether or not any product or natural growth is harmful to human health.
Oh, by the way there’s also some controversy as to how to pronounce the name … poin-SET-ee-uh or poin-SET-uh. In the dictionary, it is recognized both ways. In Texas, it’s almost always pronounced “poin-SET-uh.” Personally, I pronounce it the botanical way … “poin-SET-ee-uh.” (Most plants are given names with “i” or “a” at the end to designate a cultivar such as brugmansia or camellia. We don’t say “cuh-MEAL-uh.” It’s “cuh-MEAL-ee-uh.”
And, if you’d like to learn more about myths of all kinds, check out snopes.com.