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Poisonous Holiday Plants - Myths and Facts (12/20/2006)
Jerrold Tesmer,

Ag Tech Advisor - Fillmore, Winona, Houston Counties

During the holidays, flowering plants and greens are used to add festive touch to homes and are traditionally used as gifts.  Most of the decorative plants are harmless, but there are a few that may be hazardous to children and pets. 

The poinsettia, a favorite holiday plant, has been falsely accused of being poisonous for a number of years.  Research conducted at Ohio State University has proven that poinsettias are not poisonous and are, therefore, safe to have in the home for the holidays.  If ingested, the leaves may irritate the mouth and stomach, sometimes resulting in diarrhea or vomiting, but they are not poisonous. The milky sap may cause skin irritation to people with sensitive skin.  A second excellent non-poisonous gift plant is the Christmas cactus.  It is an attractive, easy to grow plant, even when it is not flowering.

Holly, mistletoe, Jerusalem cherry and bittersweet are four common holiday plants that are poisonous and should not be placed where children can reach them and care should be taken that the berries do not fall to the floor.  The stiff green leaves and red berries of holly are very attractive to children. Holly berries are poisonous and the Minnesota Poison Control System reports that the ingestion of 20 berries can mean death to a child.  The berries, leaves and stems of mistletoe are considered toxic.  The greenish white berries fall easily and some florists are now attaching artificial berries to the stems. A third poisonous holiday plant is the Jerusalem cherry which bears small white star-shaped flowers which are followed by attractive, round orange-red fruit.  This is a member of the nightshade family and all parts of the plant are poisonous.  The orange-red fruit, which resembles a large berry, is attractive to children and must be kept well away from them.  Bittersweet is grown for its ornamental fruit which are used in floral arrangements and winter wreaths.  All parts of this plant are considered toxic, with the berries being most easily ingested.  Contact the Poison Control Center if any amount of any of these plants is ingested.

Christmas peppers are a recent addition to the holiday plant list.  Most species of Christmas peppers are ‘hot peppers" and contain an irritating compound called capsaicin.  Handling the fruit causes a burning skin irritation and if ingested by children, the shock of something that hot in the mouth may cause respiratory problems.  These plants should be treated with respect and kept away from children.

Christmas trees and greens from pines, balsams, spruces and firs are commonly found in homes at holiday time.  The needles of these trees may be harmful if ingested in large amounts, but the primary concern is choking and airway obstruction.  Greens from the Japanese yew should be avoided because the leaves, seeds, bark and twigs of this evergreen can be toxic, causing breathing difficulties, uncontrollable trembling, and vomiting.

To be on the safe side, keep all holiday plants out of the reach of children and pets.  Remember to pick up and dispose of all leaves and berries that may fall from the plants. 

Vacuum up any needles that fall from the Christmas tree or other greens to prevent choking.  The telephone number for the Minnesota Poison Control Center is 1-800-222-1222. Keep it by your telephone!

Information in the above article was provided by Carl Hoffman, Stearns County Extension Horticulturist. 


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