ARE POINSETTIAS POISONOUS?

by Whit Gibbons

December 11, 2016

Every December I am asked questions about plants and animals associated with Christmas. Most focus on reindeer and mistletoe, but some are about poinsettias, America’s most popular Christmas flower.

These colorful plants, a harbinger of Christmas, are already in stores nationwide. Two common questions: Are poinsettias poisonous? Can they be kept alive and flowering after Christmas?

Poinsettias are said to have a bitter, unpleasant taste and may cause an upset stomach but reportedly are not toxic (or at least not fatal) to humans or to dogs and cats. The conclusion about pets I can accept, but I am always a bit skeptical about reports of this nature with regard to humans.

My first question is who did the tests on people? If a poinsettia tastes nasty and would not be good in a salad, who, after finding this out, kept on eating it? Even children do not typically continue eating something that is unpalatable.

Rather than relying on the conventional wisdom that eating poinsettias will not kill you, I suggest a simple policy regarding whether to ingest the festive Christmas plant (as well as what to do about other plants that don’t come from your own garden or the food section of the grocery store).

If you don’t know for sure if it’s edible, don’t eat it. This approach comes with a 100 percent safety guarantee. But chowing down on poinsettias is not likely to become a popular holiday pastime, so their toxicity is rather a nonissue.

Poinsettias belong to a large and economically important family of plants known as the Euphorbiaceae, many of which are called spurges. The more than 7,000 species in the family are distributed throughout the continents and islands of the world, making it one of the largest and most widespread plant groups. Some euphorbia species are used as ornamental plants; others are the source of rubber, castor oil and tapioca.

Poinsettias are similar to dogwoods in that the parts of the plant that are attractive to us are not actually petals; they are bracts, which are small, inconspicuous structures on most other flowering plants. Most of us are familiar with poinsettias as potted plants that are available during the holiday season, but in their native Mexico and Central America, poinsettias are large shrubs that get more than 10 feet tall.

As with the commercial variety, in the wild these showy plants bloom during the winter. We have all seen the traditional red poinsettias, which still constitute approximately three-fourths of the market. But poinsettias in varying shades of pinks, creamy white and purple are among those available today.

Tips on poinsettia care include keeping the thermostat set between 68 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which is considered to be within normal room temperature range. They should not experience temperatures below 50 degrees. In addition, keep poinsettias away from fireplaces, heat vents and cold drafts. Water them whenever the dirt in the pot feels dry, but be careful not to overwater.

Plants should be placed in an area where they can receive about six hours of indirect sunlight each day; avoid exposing them to direct sunlight. And if you want to keep your poinsettia thriving after the holiday season, use an all-purpose fertilizer. But, and this is very important, do not fertilize the plant until the blooming season is over. Properly cared for plants may flourish for several months but are not likely to last till next Christmas.

The first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett of Charleston, brought the bright red flowers and their seeds to the United States in the early 1800s. Their ultimate cultivation and entry into commercial trade as an ornamental flower has led to their becoming one of the top-selling potted plants in the country.

J.R. Poinsett’s ambassadorial policies in Mexico were apparently quite unpopular. But he is also the man who introduced the United States to its premier Christmastime flower. Not a bad way to be remembered.

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