Monthly Archives: December 2013

Let’s Address a Christmas Myth

During the Christmas season, many of us will likely purchase a Euphorbia pulcherrima, more commonly called a Poinsettia.  They are a staple in many folks holiday tradition.   Along with that tradition goes the belief that Poinsettia’s are toxic and harmful if consumed.  Now, while  a handful of my mentor’s and professor’s had the strange predilection to taste plants they come across, this is not something I see as common practice.  So, I’m not entirely sure how it came about that people found the plants to be toxic, I can only tell you that (as many of you believe) it is a VERY COMMON belief.  But the real question, IS IT TRUE?

Let’s start with some history shall we?  The Euphorbia pulcherrima plant is native to Mexico and Central America.  It was initially brought to America by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who at the time was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.  Poinsett although an excellent statesman, was also an avid plantsman.  He would regularly wander the countryside in search of new varieties of plants and during one such jaunt in 1828 he found this amazing little red flower growing along the roadside.  He obtained some cuttings of his little discovery and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina where he began to propagate them.  The common name for the new Euphorbia was given by a noted historian and horticulturalist of the era by the name of William Hickling Prescott.  (On a side note, W.H. Prescott was the son of the well-known American Revolutionary War Colonel William Prescott who reportedly coined the phrase, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”  Though there is some dispute if he was truly the first to say it.)  Prescott had just published a historical piece called “The Conquest of Mexico”   During the time that Poinsett was Ambassador to Mexico the country was involved in a brutal civil war which is the subject of Prescott’s book.  Prescott chronicled Poinsett’s time in Mexico in the book, so as a result he was asked to name the plant.  Thus the Poinsettia was born.

Now, let’s talk about thbrachte plant itself.  Would you believe, those amazing (typically) red flowers that engulf the top of this unique plant aren’t actually parts of the flower at all.  The flower itself is only the small center portion of those red parts so commonly attributed to the flower.  The red leaves are in fact just that, LEAVES.  Technically, they are called BRACHT’s.  Bracht’s are specialized leaf structures; in the poinsettia’s case, designed to attract pollinator’s to the flower due to it’s small and inconspicuous stature.  Ultimately, in my opinion, they are what give the plant it’s appeal.  The Bracht’s grow in many different colors, ranging for the typical red, to oranges, pinks, and even whites.  Now growers are even developing multi-colored, or “splotchy” bracht colors.  Let’s be honest, we’re all always on the look out for the next big thing.

As far as caring for your poinsettia, it’s actually more simple than you think.   Water when the surface soil is dry.  Water it thoroughly and discard any excess from your tray.   Place the plant away from hot or cold drafts.  Keep temperatures around  72 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night.  As with most of your other house plants this time of year, high humidity is preferable.  Follow these few simple tips and you’ll enjoy your poinettia plants well into January.  If your really adventurous (or just cheap) I can teach you how to maintain your poinsettia’s year round, but that is a post for another day!

Well, let’s go to the point, I guess.  Are these amazing little holiday treasures toxic or not?  According to the Mayo Clinic and research by Ohio State University, the answer is a resounding NO!!!  Although there is no solid way of knowing where the myth came from that these colorful plants were toxic, it is pretty clear that is it 100% false.  The plants have no chemicals in them that are even believed to be toxic to pets, let alone people.  The white milky sap has been known to cause an itchy rash upon contact to some people’s skin but this is in no way fatal, and easily poinsettiatreated (we’re not talking poison ivy type itch here, folks).  Now, that being said, this plant IS NOT EDIBLE either.  That may sound slightly like a contradiction in terms, but let me explain.  While consuming this plant will certainly not kill you OR your dog, it will certainly wreak havoc on your digestive system.  This would likely cause some unpleasant bathroom experiences for you, or possibly living room experiences, if your dog or cat is the one that ate it.   According to PoisIndex (the primary resource for many poison control hotlines across the country) a child who weighed 50pounds would have to eat over 500 poinsettia leaves to reach an even potentially fatal dose of compounds from the poinsettia plant.  So while I don’ t recommend eating it, it’s not time to get your affairs in order if you do.

So now you know,  and as the old saying tells us, “The more you know, the further you go!”  Enjoy your Christmas season, and relax knowing that your home is safe once again!