Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima
) are a popular Christmas decoration because their leaves turn a brilliant red during the plant's flowering period, November through March. Millions of them are sold each year. Over 34 million, in fact. They account for one quarter of the annual sales of all flowering potted plants.
But when people purchase a poinsettia, are they bringing a potentially deadly threat into their homes in the guise of a beautiful plant? Are poinsettias actually highly poisonous? For decades, many people have believed this to be so. "One poinsettia leaf can kill a child," is a warning that has been repeated often over the years.
However, this belief in the deadly poison of the poinsettia is entirely a myth. The truth is that poinsettias have low toxicity. Which is not to say that the plant is edible. It definitely isn't. (Don't serve poinsettias in a salad!) But there's never been a documented case of death by poinsettia. Almost all cases of poinsettia ingestion result in no effect at all. In a few instances, people might experience an upset stomach.
A slightly more common negative reaction is that some people develop a skin irritation after coming into contact with the plant's milky white sap, such as if a child rubs a poinsettia leaf against his face. But again, it's nothing serious. Washing the affected area usually resolves the problem.
Nevertheless, belief in the poisonous poinsettia is widespread and persistent. The AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants
notes that poinsettias are consistently among the top eight plants that people call poison control centers about. The authors of a 1996 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine
counted 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposure reported to poison control centers between the years 1985 to 1992. Most of these cases were panicked parents worried because their child had just eaten a poinsettia leaf. (The authors of this study also note a peculiar subset of cases — 27 people who tried to commit suicide by eating poinsettias.) In every instance of poinsettia ingestion, the patient survived. In fact, in only 6 percent of the tens of thousands of cases did the person experience any negative symptoms at all.
Origin of the Myth
So if poinsettias are not poisonous, where did the idea that they are come from?
One theory is that the belief stems from the similarity between the words 'poinsettia' and 'poison.' That similarity is purely coincidental. The plant is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who's credited with introducing the poinsettia to the U.S. in the early nineteenth century.
Another possibility is that it's guilt by association. Several other popular Christmas plants, holly and mistletoe, are genuinely poisonous. So people might make the assumption that if those floral mainstays of the holiday season are toxic, then the fiery red leaves of the poinsettia must be a danger as well.
However, the most direct inspiration for the widespread myth traces back to a rumor that surfaced in 1919, alleging that a child in Hawaii had died after eating a poinsettia leaf. The death was pure hearsay. No child had actually died. Or at least, no child had died from eating a poinsettia. However, the rumor of the death was heard and believed by several medical professionals in Hawaii, and through them the story was transmitted to the broader scientific community.
As a result, many health professionals came to believe that poinsettias were poisonous, and they periodically warned the public about the danger posed by the plant. They did this with the best of intentions, but their facts were based on nothing more than a rumor. One doctor, at a 1970 meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, even expanded the story of the 1919 fatality into a claim that there had been reports of "convulsions and bleeding into the brain" caused by poinsettias.
In other words, it's hard to blame the press or general public for believing that poinsettias are poisonous since for decades doctors were telling people exactly this.
Chicago Tribune - Nov 19, 1970
It wasn't until 1971 that the scientific community fully became aware of its error. In this year, researchers at Ohio State University published the first study of poinsettia toxicity. The Ohio researchers fed "extraordinarily high doses" of ground up poinsettias to one hundred and sixty rats and found "no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity nor any changes in dietary intake or general behavior pattern."
The Ohio study was partially paid for by the Society of American Florists which was eager to give poinsettias a clean bill of health since belief in the plant's toxicity was beginning to cut into sales.
All subsequent poinsettia studies have agreed with the results of this first study. The plant is not poisonous.
Since 1971, scientists have gone to some lengths to try to restore the poinsettia's damaged reputation. For instance, in 1974 the Canadian horticulturist John Bradshaw ate poinsettia leaves in front of members of the press to prove that he wouldn't die, or even get sick. However, old beliefs die hard. To this day, many people continue to believe that poinsettias are poisonous.
Below is a more detailed timeline of some of the major events in the history of the myth of the poisonous poinsettia.
The Poisonous Poinsettia Timeline1825:
Joel R. Poinsett, American Ambassador to Mexico, introduces the poinsettia to the United States.
A U.S. Dept. of Agriculture report, Principal Poisonous Plants of the United States
, by V.K. Chestnut, includes a brief anecdotal report stating that gardeners had sometimes been poisoned while trimming cultivated poinsettias.
The botanist Joseph Francis Rock publishes an article ("The Poisonous Plants of Hawaii"
) in The Hawaiian Forester and Agriculturist
(March 1920), in which he states that a child had died on Kauai as a result of "sucking freshly cut stems of the Poinsettia."
The Honolulu physician Harry Loren Arnold publishes Poisonous Plants of Hawaii
, in which he repeats the story that a child had died as a result of poinsettia poisoning. But he adds more details, claiming that a "two-year-old child of an Army officer at Fort Shafter died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919." This has the effect of enhancing the story's believability. Arnold's book was reprinted in 1968 and, probably more than any other source, helped to spread the idea that poinsettias are poisonous. When contacted by Ohio State University researchers in 1970 for more details about the death of the two-year-old child, Arnold admitted that the story was just hearsay.
Excerpt from Arnold's Poisonous Plants of Hawaii
For over five years, Sidney Kaufer, a Belmar, New Jersey pharmacist, conducts a kind of one-man mission to spread the word about the danger posed by poinsettias (as well as other Christmas plants such as mistletoe). He travels the East Coast, delivering a presentation titled "Guarding Against Accidental Poisoning" at schools and in front of civic groups. His talk includes the warning that "They are beautiful and have a pleasant smell, but the mistletoe berry and poinsettia leaf contain enough poison to kill you."
Plant biologist John Kingsbury publishes Deadly Harvest: A Guide to Common Poisonous Plants
, which includes the warning that "poinsettia has been responsible for deaths among children."
Dr. Hollis S. Ingraham, New York State Health Commissioner, issues a press release
warning the public of hazards around the house at Christmastime, including "toxic leaves from poinsettia plants." He repeats the warning in December 1970.
Chicago Tribune - Nov 19, 1970
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held in San Francisco, Dr. Charles A. Greene of Creighton University School of Medicine displays more than two dozen common household and garden plants, which he warns can be poisonous if eaten. Among the plants he displays are poinsettias, which he states can trigger fatal convulsions and severe gastro-intestinal symptons. He notes, "We've had reports of neurological fatalities because of convulsions and bleeding into the brain."
The Food and Drug Administration issues a press release warning gardeners and householders against the hazards of potential poisoning from common decorative plants, such as the castor bean, jequirity bean, and poinsettia. It notes, "One poinsettia leaf can kill a child."
Ohio State University researchers Robert Stone and W.J. Collins publish a study in the journal Toxicon
reporting no symptoms of toxicity in rats fed "extraordinarily high doses" of ground-up poinsettias. This study, partially funded by the Society of American Florists, turns the tide against the belief that poinsettias are poisonous.
Canadian horticulturist John Bradshaw eats the leaves of a poinsettia "with seeming pleasure" before an assembly of the press in order to prove that the plant isn't poisonous.
NY Times - Dec 10, 1975
Robert Boehler of Kenmore, New York files a petition with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, asking the Commission to require labels be put on poinsettias, identifying them as poisonous and warning consumers to keep them out of the reach of children. Boehler cites the information that a single poinsettia leaf, if ingested, could kill a child. In an interview, Boehler concedes that he has no special expertise in the matter, but says, "These things are sold in retail stores without any warning at all and brought home and put in places where small kids are. I've often wondered why no one did anything about it." So he decided to take matters into his own hands. The Commission denies the petition, but issues a statement
noting that, "The Commission does not intend that denial of this petition be construed as endorsement of the complete safety of these plants."
A North Carolina county reportedly bans poinsettias from nursing homes.
the National Poison Control Center Network publishes an information bulletin on holiday hazards in which it notes that although eating poinsettia leaves may cause an upset stomach, studies suggest no alarming level of toxicity.
Ann Landers column - Mar 11, 1987
Ann Landers prints a letter from "Too Late for Me in Poughkeepsie" whose cat "Chow Chow" had recently died. The correspondent says that a veterinarian identified eating poinsettias, present in the house since Christmas, as the likely cause of death. Ann Landers thanks the correspondent for sharing the story and "giving me the opportunity to sound the warning" about poinsettias. In a subsequent column, two months later, Landers corrects the misinformation, thanking "all the florists who wrote."
Dear Abby (aka Pauline Phillips, twin sister of Ann Landers) debunks the poisonous poinsettia myth in her column, noting, "after years of being maligned, bad-mouthed and discriminated against, the beautiful poinsettia plant rates a clean bill of health."
The Society of American Florists commissions a poll of 1000 Americans which finds that 53 percent of those polled mistakenly believed poinsettias to be toxic. The Society issues a press release which seeks to correct the misinformation. It notes that POISINDEX, the national poison information system for poison control centers, had found that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 poinsettia leaves in order to exceed experimental doses that found no toxicity. (It's not entirely clear where POISINDEX got those figures from, although they've been widely quoted since the late 1980s. Presumably they didn't feed 500 poinsettia leaves to a child. The numbers seem to be an extrapolation from the amount of poinsettias fed to rats in the 1971 Ohio State University study.)
Advertisement in the Standard-Speaker (Hazelton, PA) - Nov 24, 1990
Pittsburgh-based researchers Edward Krenzelok, T.D. Jacobsen, and John Aronis publish an article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine
in which they report that after reviewing 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposure brought to the attention of poison centers they found no poinsettia-related fatalities. Furthermore, "The outcome in 92.4% of the exposures was no effect or unknown nontoxic effect."