Claim: Poinsettia plants are poisonous, especially to small children and pets.
Analysis: Despite its fatal reputation, the humble Christmas poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is only mildly toxic when ingested, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. At worst, it can cause irritation of the mouth and stomach, and in some cases vomiting.
Popular misconceptions to the contrary apparently stem from a single, unsubstantiated report in 1919 to the effect that a small child had died after chewing on a poinsettia leaf. A survey of the peer-reviewed medical literature from then until now turns up zero documented cases of human or animal fatalities resulting from the consumption of poinsettia plants. In point of fact, a 1996 study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that out of 22,793 reported cases of poinsettia exposure in children, not only were there no fatalities, but 92.4% of the subjects experienced no toxic effects at all.
(Nota bene: Another decorative plant popular during the winter holidays, mistletoe, is not so harmless.)
The poinsettia is native to Mexico (where it's known as La Flor de Noche Buena), as is its connection to the Christmas holiday:
The legend regarding Euphorbia pulcherrima begins long ago with a peasant girl in Mexico, faced with a problem on Holy Night: she lacked the means to contribute a gift in the Christ Child ceremony at the church, as all the other children would be doing. The girl was, however, reassured that, to use a modern expression, "it's the thought that counts."
Taking this advice, she picked some roadside weeds on the way to church to make a bouquet. But when she arrived at the church and it was time for her to present her gift, the bouquet of weeds was transformed into something much more colorful: red Christmas poinsettias! Thus was born an enduring Christmas tradition, as we continue to associate these flowers with the holiday season.
(Source: David Beaulieu)
The poinsettia was first brought to the United States around 1830 by American diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett.
Sources and further reading:
ASPCA Poison Control Center
Poinsettia Exposures Have Good Outcomes... Just as We Thought
American Journal of Emergency Medicine, November 1996
Poinsettia Plants - Poisonous to Pets?
Purdue University, 16 December 2005
Notes on Poisoning: Euphorbia pulcherrima
Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System, 1 September 2009
Festive Medical Myths
British Medical Journal, 17 December 2008
Last updated 10/27/11