Beautiful but toxic
Let me dismiss the rumor concerning poinsettias. Poinsettias are not poisonous!
As we decorate our homes for the holidays with cheery plants, evergreen boughs and berries, it is important to know which plants and materials can be toxic to young children and pets. Many plants can pose serious threats to the curious two-year-old or the inquisitive dog, cat, or bird.
Approximately 300,000 species of plants inhabit the earth. Of these, only about 700 species found in this hemisphere are know to cause loss of life or serious illness in man or animals; however, the toxicity of many new, exotic houseplants is not known at this time. Be aware that even ‘safe’ plants may cause because the plant or soil may be contaminated with pesticides and/or growth regulators. If young children or curious pets live in or visit your house, you may want to consider purchasing plants from an organic grower or placing the plants out of reach.
Not all plants listed on poisonous plant lists are fatal. Plants are labeled as poisonous if they cause any kind of problem to humans, farm animals, or pets. Some are extremely toxic. For example, two oleander leaves will prove fatal to an adult. Other plants may just cause minor skin irritations.
Most toxic plants are bitter to the taste or irritate the mouth so generally the animal or person stops eating or chewing on it long before enough is consumed to cause any toxic effects.
Let’s look at some common holiday plant materials and their toxicity. First, let me dismiss the rumor concerning poinsettias. Poinsettias are not poisonous! However, they do contain a white, latex-like sap. Some people are allergic to this sap and a contact dermatitis may result. Treatment is usually not necessary. Christmas cacti and Norfolk Island pines are also nontoxic. Ornamental pepper plants with their tiny, bright colored fruits are not poisonous but, wow, are they hot!
Some of the more toxic plants include amaryllis with its gorgeous, trumpet-shaped blooms, azaleas, and Jerusalem cherries. The bright orange fruits of the Jerusalem cherry are especially alluring to small children. The English ivy (Hedera helix) used sometimes in indoor arrangements and topiaries contains saponins. These produce a burning sensation in the throat and may cause severe abdominal pain.
Evergreens are also often used in arrangements, for wreaths and swags, and as roping. Branches from yews, laurel, holly, and boxwood are extremely toxic. The Delaware Indians used laurel leaves in preparing a suicide tea. The shiny holly berries may prove attractive and toxic to children. Mistletoe is also extremely poisonous and should not be used where children or pets may access it.
If you have a question about whether a plant is poisonous, call the UCONN Home and Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 860.486.6271, visit us on the web at www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Office. Information about the toxicity of plants and other substances is available by calling the National Poison Hotline at (800) 222-1222, which is open 24/7.
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