Most Iowans have heard the warning never to place pots of poinsettias on the floor of their home because an unsuspecting child or pet might eat the leaves and die.
Christine Engelbrecht, a plant pathologist at Iowa State University, says it’s a long-standing, false rumor that the red-and-green flowers traditionally associated with Christmas can also be killers. "They’re actually NOT poisonous. That’s an old urban legend that started back around 1919," she says. "There was a report of a little boy in Hawaii that died and they thought it was from poisoning from a poinsettia plant but that was never actually proven. There have been lots of studies ever since that time."
She says it’s well-documented that poinsettias are not fatal if injested, but she admits, the persistent rumors are hard to squelch. Engelbrecht says scientists have essentially tried to poison rats with poinsettias and they’ve learned a child would have to eat some 500 to 600 red poinsettia leaves to become poisoned. Aside from that, she says, those leaves taste terrible so no one would likely ever eat a lethal dose of them.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and dates back centuries to when the Aztecs cultivated them more like trees that grew to be ten feet high. Seventeenth-century Franciscan priests in Mexico used poinsettias in nativity processions, the first recorded use for a Christmas celebration, though they weren’t called poinsettias then. That didn’t come until Joel Robert Poinsette introduced the plant to the U.S. in 1825 while he was the U-S Ambassador to Mexico. The plants were later named to honor him.