Poinsettia's Poisonous Reputation Persists, Despite Proof to the Contrary

Dec 07, 2012

Poinsettia's Poisonous Reputation Persists, Despite Proof to the Contrary

Myth busted: Poinsettias aren't poisonous, say Ohio State scientists.

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Perhaps it has happened to you: You present a friend with a beautiful poinsettia for the holidays, and she shrinks in horror. How could you possibly give her something that could be deadly to Fifi or Fluff or little Freddy?

The good news is that it’s not, though you may have a hard time convincing her.

“Every year, people ask me if poinsettias are poisonous to people and pets,” said Robert McMahon, associate professor and coordinator of the greenhouse program at Ohio State University's Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster. Students in the program grow and sell approximately 1,200 poinsettias each year. “I try my best each year to spread the word that they are not.”

Disproven years ago by Ohio State research, the myth persists. In 1971, researchers tested the toxicity of poinsettias by blending a solution from parts of poinsettia plants and feeding it to rats. Reporting their findings in the journal Toxicon, the researchers concluded that rats, “when given extraordinarily high doses of various portions of the poinsettias, show no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity, nor any changes in dietary intake or general behavior pattern.”

In other words, not only did it not kill the rats, it didn’t even dent their appetites.

The myth may have arisen from an unsubstantiated report in 1919 of a small child who died after chewing on a poinsettia leaf. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that many members of the poinsettia’s botanical family, Euphorbia, have highly toxic latex sap. Poinsettia sap is innocuous enough that only people with a latex allergy are likely to have a reaction if they get it on their skin.

Most veterinary medicine websites state that poinsettias can be mildly toxic to dogs and cats and can cause vomiting, drooling and, rarely, diarrhea. Symptoms are self-limiting and generally don’t require medical treatment, according to the Pet Poison Helpline. The site goes on to note that there are far more worrisome holiday plants, such as bouquets containing lilies, holly or mistletoe, which can cause kidney failure or other potentially fatal reactions.

So while you may want to make sure your poinsettia is out of your pets’ snacking range for the sake of your carpet, you shouldn’t worry too much about little Freddy. To reach the equivalent of what those rats consumed in the 1971 study, a 50-pound child would have to eat upward of 500 leaves -- an unlikely scenario, according to McMahon.

“Any adventurous souls who actually take a bite out of a poinsettia leaf will not want to repeat the experience,” he said. “Poinsettia vegetation tastes lousy! Eat a carrot instead.”

Ohio State ATI is an associate-degree-granting unit within Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Ohio State University Extension, which is part of the college as well, offers a free fact sheet called "Poinsettia Care in the Home" at http://go.osu.edu/poinsettias.

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