Quilt Pattern

Poinsettia
are NOT toxic
gol durn it

illustrated with a traditional poinsettia quilt pattern

   

Poinsettias are harmless & non-toxic to pets & people.

To quote Keith L. Smith of the Ohio State University Agricultural Extension: "Various reports over the years have led the general public to believe poinsettias are toxic to humans; however, this has not been authenticated. Research conducted at The Ohio State University & other institutions has proved the old wives' tale that poinsettias are poisonous to be false."

Yet it is a deeply ingrained myth that poinsettias are toxic. It is so ingrained that it gets tossed onto dozens of "poisonous plants lists" with no one bothering to check to find out if there is actually any toxic alkaloid in this plant. Veterinarians will state with straight faces that poinsettias will kill cats or dogs, though no veterinarian on earth has ever seen this happen because it can't happen.

The mature plant exudes a white milk similar to that of genuinely toxic euphorbias, which would tend to increase the belief in this myth once it got started. Yet there is not one case on record of poinsettias injuring pets or people. Nevertheless, some people, confronted with the evidence that their lifelong belief in poinsettia toxicity is incorrect, continue to justify their fears on the basis of allergic reactions to the latex.

But the caustic potential of poinsettia latex is about the same as for that of a dandylion. Rash or contact dermatitis can occur with geraniums, english ivy, tulips, daffodils, asters, chrysanthemums, lilacs, magnolias, cedar sawdust or woodchips, & all manner of plantlife. Even such widely eaten plants as carrots, garlic, parsnips, onions, tomatoes, ginger & celery can cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Very sensitive individuals allergic to many such things should handle all plants with extra care.

But most people will never have such a reaction even with persistant exposures. So a fear of touching poinsettias is about as rational as a fear of touching carrots & tomatoes. As a whimsical sidelight, for hundreds of years tomatoes were indeed regarded as deadly poison. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (1771-1850) began growing tomatos near Salem, New Jersey, in 1808, but was frustrated in his attempts to sell the fruit or convince others to obtain seed from him to grow their own. According to legend, in 1820, he put on a public show on the courthouse steps, to the horror & consternation of onlookers. Slowly the news spread that you wouldn't die from eating a tomato, though it was not until after the Civil War that it finally became popularly understood that tomatoes were safely eaten. Well, a rich tomato sauce does give me acid indigenstion sufficient to justify mistaking them for toxic.

The currently prevailing theory is that the myth of poinsettia toxicity began in Hawaii in 1919, when a two year old child was found dead under a full grown poinsettia tree, with a poinsettia leaf in her hand. This is the only death-by-poinsettia ever reported, & it was a 100% false report. A Cornell University professor in 1972 attempted long after the case to track down the specifics, knowing as he did that poinsettias are nontoxic. The last living witness to the case said there had never been poinsettias involved in the only known case of poinsettia poisoning; that he didn't know how the story got started since poinsettias were not involved (more details can be had from the Urban Folklore volume The Mexican Pet).

In close to a century since, one additional case of moderate illness has been reported, but it was not medically tested at the time, & could've been anything, but the parent presenting a child with stomach upset had seen the child eat a poinsettia leaf. This was the much-cited case in Rochester, NY, in 1965, but the child did not need to be treated for anything whatsoever.

The urban folktale itself causes pointless headaches for florists & poinsettia ranchers, as nothing squelches the mistaken belief. The Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch strives every winter to undue this unkillable myth, to the point that market manager Thom David would grab a few bracts & eat them right in front of anyone who persists in the belief. That always settles the matter for the small group before him, so perhaps he should do the same on Fear Factor, as nothing less would reach enough people to have any chance of turning the widespread superstition around.

Harrassed by superstitious activists who wanted the government to force the poinsettia industry to put toxic warning labels on these plants, the Consumer Products Safety Commission accumulated all relevant literature, & in 1975 denied the petition, issuing instead a clean bill of health for the utter safety of poinsettias, citing the complete lack of any evidence to the contrary.

Yet a Bruskin/Goldring Research poll of 1,000 Americans found that 50% were certain poinsettias were poisonous, 34% didn't know, & only 16% were well informed. They found that women were more prone to believing the myth than men; & anyone under the age of 50 was more apt to believe it than anyone aged 50 or older (so we do get wiser as we age!); & people in the Northeast were more prone to believing the myth than were people in the West.

Many otherwise harmless plant alkaloids in sufficient concentration can cause allergic skin reaction externally, or vomiting internally, for which reason the American Medicical Association's poison handbook still states that poinsettias might cause stomach upset or vomiting, though otherwise harmless. The AMA is being overcautious even at that, since stomach upset & vomiting can be induced by a cheap meal at Taco Time, a single blade of grass, or too many Muskateer candybars.

The study by the Academic Faculty of Entomology at Ohio State University measured effects of ingesting large amounts of the plant & were unable to reach a toxic level. Using rat models, a diet of poinsettia leaves had no adverse effects, a zero mortality rate, zero symptoms of toxicity, no changes in behavior, no external rash to their wee hands or faces from holding what they were eating. They were fed serially each part of the poinsettia to find out if any part of it was even mildly toxic. So far as the rats were concerned, the poinsettias were completely edible raw, though for a human to eat them, one would need to be awfully desparate, as the bitter taste is extremely horrible.

The Ohio study established that if a 50 pound dog or child could eat the equivalent of between 500 & 600 of the bracts, or drink a pound & a half of the sap, they would still not have reached a toxic dosage. In essence they found it to be completely nontoxic.

The Ohio research has been duplicated by other institutes because of the persistance of the belief, & the results are always the same. A study by the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh & Carnegie Mellon University found that out of 22,793 poinsettia exposures in the American Association of Poison Control Centers database, not one case of toxicity was present.

In 1996, Dr. Edward Krenzelok, director of Pittsburgh Poison Center, analyzed data on 850,000 poinsettia exposure reports in the database of the American Association of Poison Countrol Centers, finding not one case of authentic poisoning. It is extremely hard for children to successfully swallow the leaves because they taste so damned bad, but in that enormous database were 92 cases involving children injesting substantial quantities of poinsettias, inducing very worried parents to contact poison centers. Not one of these cases resulted in even slightly harmful effects.

My own suspicion is the myth originally transferred from Christmas mistletoe (mildly toxic) & English holly (much more toxic), which are properly worried about when brought into the home for the winter holidays.

   



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