Myths Persist About Poisonous Holiday Plants

December 02, 1997

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Some reports about poisonous holiday plants are as mythical as tales of Santa, says a Penn State horticulturist.

"Certain holiday plants believed to be fatal if eaten are relatively harmless, while others are truly toxic," says J. Robert Nuss, professor of ornamental horticulture in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Of course, children and pets can't make the distinction between what's dangerous and what isn't. It's best to keep all plants out of their reach."

Many people persist in believing that the most popular Christmas plant, the poinsettia, is extremely poisonous.

About 20 years ago, two Ohio State researchers fed large quantities of poinsettia parts to rats, with no ill effects. In 1975, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission exonerated the poinsettia of the false charge that it's lethal if ingested.

The commission also refuted allegations that the berries of American mistletoe are fatal if eaten. "But that doesn't mean mistletoe berries are edible," says Nuss. "Mistletoe should be hung out of the reach of children and pets, and berries that drop should be removed from the floor immediately."

About 400 plant species in the United States are known to be poisonous, according to the book, "Poisonous Plants of the United States," by Walter Conrad Muenscher. Among them are holly, ivy, Jerusalem cherry, laurel, rhododendron and yew -- all commonly used in holiday decorations.

If a child or pet accidentally ingests these plants, consult a physician or veterinarian immediately. Do not induce vomiting without the advice of a doctor. If a plant containing corrosive juices has been eaten, vomiting can damage the digestive tract.

The Poison Information Center for central Pennsylvania can be reached by calling 1-800-521-6110.

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EDITORS: For more information, contact J. Robert Nuss at 814-863-2196 or John Wall John_Wall@agcs.cas.psu.edu 814-863-2719 814-865-1068 fax

Last Updated March 19, 2009