Lovely to look at, but watch out

The hidden dangers of poinsettias

When I was teenager living in Florida, our Flor de Noche Buena tree towered over my father’s head, blazing its red and green Christmas glory by the back porch door.

The plant, whose name translates to “flower of the holy night,” is more commonly known as the poinsettia, and it seems to be everywhere from Thanksgiving through the winter months.

But despite any sentimentality about our old backyard poinsettia tree, I’ve had only small silk versions in my home since having children because of concerns about the plant being poisonous. Turns out, poinsettia’s dangerous reputation is largely overblown. Other holiday plants are more toxic, poison control experts say.

Holly, mistletoe, Jerusalem cherry and bittersweet — all commonly used in holiday decorating because of their richly colored leaves and colorful berries — carry more serious poison dangers than poinsettia. None of these should be located where children can reach them, and parents should be especially careful to make sure no enticing dried berries fall to the floor, said Maria Chapman, program coordinator, Poison Prevention, with the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital.

Ingesting the leaves or berries of any of these plants commonly leads to gastric distress, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, Chapman said.

Likewise, consuming large quantities of Christmas tree needles or other holiday greenery could cause stomach upset — and pose a choking risk, she said.

Poinsettia’s deadly reputation stems from a single unconfirmed death of a 2-year-old in 1919, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each year, the nation’s emergency centers get hundreds of calls about accidental ingestion of poinsettia leaves or berries, usually involving young children.

The NIH noted that most cases don’t cause symptoms because the plant contains low levels of toxins. “However, steeping the plant in hot water (to make an ‘herbal tea’) may result in large amounts of ingested toxin,” and can lead to more serious problems, the NIH reports.

People with atopic eczema and latex allergies might want to steer clear of poinsettia, because it is in the same plant family as natural rubber latex and shares two common allergen proteins, according to a 2012 report in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Forty percent of people with latex allergy develop cross-sensitivity with the poinsettia plant, with symptoms ranging from contact dermatitis to anaphylactic shock. “Families that include members with atopic eczema … may want to avoid using poinsettia as a decorative addition to their holiday,” the report stated.


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