It's barely December, and already it seems every office hallway and condo foyer is decked out in the finest trimmings of the holiday season. That means tinsel, evergreens, and of course, the ubiquitous poinsettia plant.
Likely you've been warned at some point or another that the red pointy-leaved plant is toxic and can be poisonous to pets and children if ingested. This holiday season, Bell Canada went so far as to ban the festive plants from their Toronto headquarters because a single employee reported a severe poinsettia allergy.
So how dangerous are these plants? As it turns out, not very.
"While they can be considered toxic plants, when compared to other indoor ornamental plants, it is just a mild one," says Mihai Costea, a botanist at Wilfrid Laurier University.
According to the Government of Canada's publicly available database of poisonous plants, the leafy plant has been listed as a toxic plant based on a single death of a child in Hawaii in 1919. Apparently the young girl was found dead holding a poinsettia leaf in her hand, and that was enough evidence to damn the plant for decades to come.
The government guide states in no uncertain terms that "Poinsettia should no longer be regarded as a severely toxic plant."
Subsequent tests have found no convincing evidence of the plant's toxicity to humans or animals. In extensive studies on rats, animals fed "extraordinary" amounts of poinsettia suffered literally no ill effects.
However, there was one report of an old dog that ate poinsettia, vomited, went into a coma and died, and that is the only report of an animal death as a result of poinsettia ingestion.
The fact that poinsettias pose no serious threat to infants, adults or pets is easy to uncover — a simple Google search will reveal the phrase "poinsettia plants are not poisonous" on numerous reputable websites.
The literature does indicate that some humans may have an allergy to the latex in the plant which can result in dermatitis. However, according to Costea, "If the latex doesn't come into contact with the skin of a person susceptible to an allergy, nothing can happen."
It's a statement that certainly makes the Bell ban on poinsettias seem like overkill.
So why does the myth persist? Perhaps because, as pretty as poinsettias are, there is such an abundance of Christmassy decorative options, that consumers would rather forgo the harmless plant for a few sprigs of a less notorious evergreen, just in case.
"There are other plants cultivated indoors or used as cut flowers that are more toxic," says Costea. "Companies are trying to avoid liabilities, but the result is sometimes absurd. If companies want to avoid all the possible allergens around us, they would have to force people to work in space-suits."
So go ahead and get that poinsettia this holiday season, and feel good about skipping the space suit.