Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, is probably better known for his contributions to the horticultural community than for his diplomatic legacy. That is because, in 1828, he introduced the poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) into this country.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in Mexico, in the 1500s, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. An angel appeared to the girl and inspired her to gather weeds from the roadside and place them – quite boldly! – in the very front of the church altar. From the weeds burst forth beautiful crimson “blossoms” in the form of what we now know are poinsettias, also known as Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night. Franciscan friars, known for their connection to Nature, adopted the use of the plants in their Christmas celebrations. Eventually, the star-shaped leaf pattern came to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, with the sanguine-red leaves (that’s right, they are leaves not flowers!) representing the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
Somewhere between then and now, poinsettias developed a reputation for being highly toxic. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans believe the plant to be poisonous. This could, pardon the pun, stem from the fact that most plants of the Euphorbia genus are, indeed, toxic. Additionally, the plant may have acquired its reputation in the early part of the 20th Century when the young child of a United States Army officer was alleged to have died from ingesting the leaf of the plant. It did not matter that the story was later retracted. The myth was born. And myth it is. Well, mostly.
An American Journal of Emergency Medicine study of about 23,000 cases reported zero fatalities to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Zip. Zilch. Nada. My own personal call to California’s Poison Control Hotline confirmed this. Likewise, according to the American Medical Association’s Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, ingesting the poinsettia plant does little more than cause nausea, vomiting, and maybe some diarrhea.
Sounds like the first and only time I ate sushi in an airport!
But as a pediatrician, I should be uber-worried about kids ingesting the plant’s leaves, right? Not so fast. POISINDEX, a major source for poison control centers, says it would take a 50-pound kid eating 500 bright red leaves (called, more technically, bracts) in order to consume enough to be toxic. That would be one determined kid. Can you say, “Obsessive-compulsive?!?”
But my wife is a large animal veterinarian, and we have a black lab who eats anything and everything. Surely, I should be concerned that the poinsettia is poisonous to pets, right? Slow down, there, buddy. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (and boonDOCS’ own small animal veterinarian specialist, Ai Takeuchi-Byrne, VMD) says poinsettias are not a deadly threat to animals. California’s Poison Control confirmed only three cases of ingestion by dogs – one in which the dog ate the entire plant! – and the worst thing that happened was vomiting and diarrhea. Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that poinsettias seem to do nothing more than cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal tract irritation, which may include excessive drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea. Certainly nothing severe or fatal.
Sounds like my first and only trip to Tijuana, Mexico!
Now, as a dermatologist, I would be remiss if I did not mention that poinsettias have been known to demonstrate possible cross-reactivity with latex. That means you might not want to bring one home to someone who has a known latex allergy. Likewise, there are some reports of the plant causing chemical irritant dermatitis. In other words, do not play excessively with the plant or you might get a temporary rash that will go away on its own. Oh, the horror! The horror!
So, the point to all of this is simple: There is a lot to get anxious about at Christmas time. Poinsettia toxicity should not be at the top of your “naughty” list. That said, try to avoid the poinsettia salad at that new vegetarian place down the street – unless you want to spend the holidays on a toilet!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from boonDOCS!!!