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Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Summary

Though some say poinsettia is deadly and others claim it is non-toxic, the truth lies in between. This popular Christmas decoration is of very low toxicity and rarely, if ever, causes symptoms of poisoning.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the poinsettia is just one of a series.

Family

Euphorbiaceae

Meaning of the Name

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Euphorbia
Named for Euphorbus, the 1st century Greek physician to King Juba II of Numidia or Mauritania depending on which source you read. These two adjacent African kingdoms are part of modern Algeria. A literal translation could be 'plenty of food' but that seems an odd name to ascribe to a poisonous genus.

pulcherrima
The adjective of the Latin 'pulcher' meaning 'pretty'.

Common Names and Synonyms

poinsettia, Christmas star,  Mexican flameleaf, Christmas flower, lobster plant, painted leaf

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

There is an annual virtual battle between websites stating that poinsettia is a deadly poison and those claiming it is not toxic. Both are wrong. Poinsettia is poisonous but the toxicity is so low that there is very little chance of anyone ingesting a sufficient quantity of the plant to produce symptoms. As such it provides a perfect example of the difference between 'poisonous' and 'harmful'.

Even sites that claim the plant is not toxic usually say that ingestion of a substantial quantity of leaves could result in gastrointestinal upset.

The Washington Poison Control Center lists it as being capable of causing nausea and diarrhoea due to its ‘minor toxicity’ as well as being capable of causing dermatitis from contact.

Like all Euphorbias, it has a milky sap that can cause skin problems if not washed off.

Incidents

It is sometimes said that children have died but without offering any support for that statement.

If any evidence is offered it is related to a case in 1919 when a 2-year old child, in Hawaii, was found dead under a poinsettia tree holding, it is alleged, a leaf. Subsequent investigations have established that poinsettia was not implicated in the death.

The American Association of Poison Control Centres Annual Report for 2010 records over 53,000 'incidents' involving plants. Of these, 750 related to poinsettia. The AAPCC includes simple information calls in its figures so there is no way of knowing how many of those 750 calls involved actual plant ingestion.

Folklore and Facts

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

It is said that poinsettias were first part of Christmas in 16th century Mexico when a poor girl was told by an angel to offer weeds as a gift and the angel turned the leaves into a beautiful red display. It was introduced to the USA in the 1820s by Joel Roberts Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico at the time, and though it achieved some popularity it was not until the 1950s that plant breeders started trying to produce a plant that would rapidly grow into a small bush covered in the red leaves. Very clearly, the ‘tradition’ of having poinsettia in the house at Christmas was commercially driven.

Given that the plant is difficult to keep from one year to the next and it is even more difficult to get it to produce its characteristics red leaves after the first year, it is an ideal plant for retailers as most people will buy new each year.

So sensitive to the term poisonous is the horticultural industry that it sponsored research that demonstrated that poinsettias caused no serious harm. The research correctly determined that the toxicity of the plant is very low but the conclusion that poinsettias were not poisonous looks like erring on the side of the sponsor’s interests.