Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But no, Virginia, poinsettias are not poisonous to kids or pets.
The myth probably began in Hawaii about a century ago. According to the story, the young child of an Army officer stationed there died after eating poinsettia leaves. The true story, however, was revealed in 1972 when a Cornell University professor did some digging. After investigating at the Hawaii hospital and interviewing the family of the doctor who treated the boy, the professor found that no poinsettias were involved at all in the boy’s illness and death. Nonetheless, the story continued to be recounted and has developed into a widely held yet false belief.
In the early 1970s, researchers at The Ohio State University tested the toxicity of poinsettias by adding parts of the plant to a liquid solution, mixing it in a blender and feeding it to 55 rats. The researchers, writing in the journal Toxicon, concluded that rats, "when given extraordinarily high doses of various portions of the poinsettia, show no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity nor any changes in dietary intake or general behavior pattern."
And according to POISINDEX, the national information source for poison control centers, a 50-pound child would need to ingest 500-600 poinsettia bracts (leaves) to exceed the doses that Ohio State found were not toxic – an amount far greater than likely to be consumed by anyone.
As with most house plants, poinsettias are not meant to be eaten. Still, the research showed that ingestion of a substantial number of poinsettia leaves would cause little reaction – at worst, perhaps some nausea, vomiting or mild skin irritation in individuals sensitive to the latex in the sap.
So, if you’ve been avoiding poinsettias because you’re afraid they’ll kill you, let me implore you to cast the myth aside and enjoy their beauty this holiday season. And if you’re wondering about their care, here’s what you need to know:
First, be sure to select the pick of the litter … the cream of the crop. Pick out the freshest available. Avoid any with leaves that are are browning or crumpled. And look for a tight cyathia - the tiny yellow flower cluster at the center of each stalk. Those are actually the plant’s "blooms."
DO use a large and roomy shopping bag to protect your plant while transporting it.
DO place your plant in indirect sunlight for at least six hours per day. If direct sun can't be avoided, diffuse the light with a shade or sheer curtain.
DO provide room temperatures between 68 and 70 degrees. Generally speaking, if you are comfortable, so is your poinsettia.
DO water your plant when the soil feels dry to the touch.
DO fertilize your plant after the blooming season with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer.
DON'T expose your plant to chilling winds when transporting it.
DON'T place plants near cold drafts or excessive heat. Avoid placing them on top of appliances or near fireplaces and ventilating ducts.
DON'T expose plants to temperatures below 50 degrees. Poinsettias are sensitive to cold, so do not put them outside during the winter months.
DON'T overwater your plant or allow it to sit in standing water. Always remove a plant from any decorative container before watering, and allow the water to drain completely.
DON'T fertilize your plant when it is in bloom.
Finally, I pronounce it poin-set-ee-uh (LISTEN), as opposed to poin-set-uh. Both pronunciations are considered correct, but from a botanical standpoint, it really should be poin-set-ee-uh. When a flower or plant is named after someone (and this plant was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico), you add an “i” and “a” for the “ee-uh” sound. We don't pronounce “plumeria” plu-mare-uh, do we? And while I’m at it, “pecan” is pronounced puh-kahn, not pee-can. That’s what you keep under the bed for when you can’t make it to the bathroom at night.