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Poinsettias are non-toxic, despite the persistent myth!

For me, Thanksgiving always seems to be the point where fall ends and winter begins. The official calendar may disagree with me, but with Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas less than a month away, I'm already thinking about next spring.

For landscapers and gardeners, its not visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. Rather, it's visions of fresh, green growth and emerging new buds that we know are just around the corner. Well, almost...

First we must get through the rest of the Holidays with the minimum of stress! In my next column, I will suggest a few stocking stuffers (wheelbarrow stuffers?) for the gardeners on your list, or as "I-deserve-it" treats for yourself.

But today, let's debunk a myth that seems to surface every year at about this time.

The myth: Poinsettias are toxic.The reality: They're not.

The origin of this misinformation apparently dates back to 1919 when the death of an army officer's two-year-old child was wrongly attributed to the ingestion of Poinsettia leaves. Since then, according to web sites such as www.truthorfiction.com the myth of the poisonous Poinsettia has continued to spread.

A 50 lb child would have to eat 1.25 lbs of Poinsettia bracts (about 500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses reported by the POISINDEX Information Service. Poisindex is the reference used by most poison control centers. You can read the full story at a web site that tracks urban legends here: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/poinsettia.asp and there is a direct link from this column archived under "The Plant Man" heading at my web site, www.landsteward.org if you'd care to read it.

Furthermore, the snopes web site reports that the American Medical Association's "Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants" lists nothing more than occasional vomiting as a side effect of ingesting otherwise harmless poinsettia leaves.

"It's a testament to the persistence of myths," says Paul Bachman, marketing chairman of the Society of American Florists and quoted at www.twilightbridge.com "Poinsettias simply are not toxic. That was proven 23 years ago and we want to set the record straight."

Researchers at Ohio State University have measured the effects of ingesting unusually high doses of all parts of the plant, including the leaves, stem and sap, and found the plants to be non-toxic.

But if you believe that Poinsettias are poisonous, you're not alone. In a poll mentioned at the twilightbridge web site, only 16% of adults knew that the plants are non-toxic. (50% of respondents believed Poinsettias are poisonous and 34% said they didn't know.)

But I have to say, I definitely do NOT suggest that any part of a Poinsettia should be eaten, particularly by small children, who could suffer some discomfort and stomach upset even though they will not be poisoned.

Animals – particularly cats – should be kept away from Poinsettias because they tend to vomit after eating ANY houseplant... even those "cat oats" that are grown specifically for them to chomp on.

So... for your peace of mind (and to avoid cleaning up kitty puke from the rug) it's a good idea to display your Holiday Poinsettias away from the kids and the cats, even if you now know that no permanent damage is likely to occur.

What about those other traditional Holiday decorations, holly and ivy?

According to various medical resources, most types of ivy would cause a burning sensation in the throat when ingested. And eating the leaves or berries of most varieties of holly would cause vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. Again, all excellent reasons to keep your festive greenery away from little hands and paws, but not particularly life-threatening!

Remember, I'm always pleased to receive your comments or questions and I try to respond personally via e-mail within a couple of days.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to steve@landsteward.org and for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter, visit www.landsteward.org