History of poinsettias and their lethal lore


During this time of year, it’s impossible to be out shopping and not come across bountiful displays of ruby red poinsettias. The abundance has everything to do with their November to March blooming season, when the leaves turn a brilliant red. As a result, millions are sold each year during the holidays, over 34 million, in fact. They account for one quarter of the annual sales of all flowering potted plants. 

These beauties are also known as: Euphorbia, lobster flower, flame leaf flower, Flower of the Holy Night, Flower of Christmas Eve, Crown of the Andes, and Easter flower.

While poinsettias are commonly “hyped” as poisonous plants, they rarely are, and the poisoning is greatly exaggerated. 

Are they truly poisonous?

“One poinsettia leaf can kill a child,” is a warning that has been repeated often over the years. Although it isn’t suggested that anyone put poinsettia leaves in a salad, their poisonous nature is entirely a myth. The truth is that poinsettias have low toxicity, and there’s never been a documented case of death by poinsettia. However, in a few instances, people might experience an upset stomach. 

History of cat

Courtesy of Nationwide Pet

Poinsettias aren’t harmful to cats, but other holiday plants can be

Most of us have also been told that poinsettias can be dangerous to animals if the leaves are eaten. True, the milky white sap is mildly toxic, as it contains chemicals called diterpenoid euphorbol esters and saponin-like detergents, but according to www.petpoisonhelpline.com, signs are generally self-limiting and typically the animals don’t require medical treatment unless the symptoms are severe and persistent. 

Mildly toxic

When the milky sap is ingested by animals, mild signs of vomiting, drooling or rarely, diarrhea, may be seen. If it is exposed to skin, dermal irritation (including redness, swelling, and itchiness) may develop. Rarely, eye exposure can result in mild irritation. 

Far more worrisome, particularly to cats, are holiday bouquets containing lilies, holly, or mistletoe. “Lilies, including tiger, Asiatic, stargazer, Easter and day lilies, are the most dangerous plants for cats,” says Dr. Ahna Brutlag, assistant director of Pet Poison Helpline. “The ingestion of one to two leaves or flower petals is enough to cause sudden kidney failure in cats.” And other yuletide pants such as holly berries and mistletoe can also be toxic to pets and can cause gastrointestinal upset and even heart arrhythmias if ingested. 

Even though poinsettias have traditionally been given a bad rap, they have a long and intriguing history that bears telling. Native to Central America, the plant flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The Aztecs used the plant for decorative purposes, but also put it to practical use. In addition to the milky white sap, which the Aztecs used to make a preparation for fevers, they also extracted a purplish dye from the plant for use in textiles and cosmetics. 

History of new poinsettia

34 million poinsettias are sold each year during the holidays

Had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), we might be lacking one of most popular holiday decorations. The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829). Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but his real love in the scientific field was botany. (Mr. Poinsett later founded the institution which we know today as the Smithsonian Institution).

Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

Poinsett honored for bringing poinsettia to the US

Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman, is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. It is thought to have become known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, the origin of the name recognizing the man who first brought the plant to the US.

Congress honored Joel Poinsett by declaring December 12th as National Poinsettia Day, which commemorates the date of his death in 1851. 

I imagine he had no idea his namesake flower would be the most popular holiday plant in history, nor that it would be falsely deemed dangerous. To most everyone, it simply represents the festive atmosphere that heralds in the holidays.

For more information about holiday decorations that are harmful to animals, go to www.petpoisonhelpline.com.

References: www.phoenixflowershop.com, www.hoax.com.