“Will That Kill My Kid?” Poinsettia Edition

Unjustly accused. |  Jonathan Diemel  on  Unsplash

Unjustly accused. | Jonathan Diemel on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, my parents took my two-year old with them to pick out a Christmas tree. When they returned, my son struggled into their kitchen, beaming behind the beautiful white poinsettia he had picked out for me. 

"Don't let him eat it," my dad joked. This was a child who had refused most food that wasn't apples or Christmas cookies for the duration of our visit, so there was a vanishingly small likelihood he was going to eat the plant. But my dad issued that warning anyway, as he and my mom have done for as long as I could remember, because poinsettias are poisonous. 

Except that they're not. Poinsettias were cleared of all charges in the 1970s, when researchers at Ohio State found them to be non-toxic. Snopes and other myth-busting websites have exonerated the poinsettia. And yet, poinsettias have continued to be incorrectly identified as poisons. What accounts for the persistence of this holiday myth, and what can the example of the poinsettia teach us about fear-based parenting? 

According to Ecke Ranch, the company responsible for cultivating poinsettias into the flowers we recognize today, Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night) were so named because they bloom during the holiday season. They feature in a Christmas miracle story about a poor girl whose paltry offering of weeds bloomed into brilliant red flowers when she placed them by her chapel's nativity scene. The plant most Americans know it is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a former medical student and amateur botanist who, as the United States' first ambassador to Mexico, found the plant and brought it home to his South Carolina greenhouse in the late 1820s. 

The plant, which in Ecke Ranch suggests was used as a fever treatment by the Aztecs, did not become "poisonous" until 100 years after its introduction to the US. The poison poinsettia myth has its roots in botanist Joseph Francis Rock's assertion that a two-year-old child had died from sucking on the plant's leaves.

It's not clear that the child existed, or if the child did exist if he died an early death, or if the child did die at a young age, if it was a poinsettia that did him in. But the myth spread like, well, poinsettia, which had easily taken root across the US and into Hawaii, where the myth originated. By 1944, that myth was solidified in Harry L. Arnold's Poisonous Plants of Hawaii:

"The milky juice and the leaves are poisonous. The two-year-old child of an Army officer at Fort Shafter died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919. The poisonous substance is neither an alkaloid nor a glucoside, and is probably a resin. It causes intense emesis and catharsis, and delirium before death. The writer has been unable to find any definitive statement of its pharmacological action or its antidote."

The myth then became an invasive species, growing into medical publications and then popular magazines throughout the US. In the 1970s, the Society of American Florists, wishing to restore the poinsettia's good name while improving their business, commissioned a study from researchers at Ohio State, which found that poinsettias were not poisonous. 

The child who may or may not have existed and who may or may not have died is long gone from memory, but the effects of his story linger nearly 100 years later, a testament to the long-reaching effects fear can have on our collective parenting decisions. Belief in poisonous poinsettias has been as persistent as belief in Santa Claus, in spite of mounting contrary evidence. 

But in the case of the flowers, why do we keep believing long after we should? One theory is the name, which sounds close to "poison" and keeps danger front-of-mind. The Museum of Hoaxes identifies this theory as well as "guilt by association." Poinsettias, which look similar to holly and mistletoe, got unfairly grouped with these actual poisonous plants. 

That belief may be starting to change. Over the past few holiday seasons, the Society of American Florists has encouraged its members to download and distribute a flyer about poinsettias. Perhaps their ongoing campaign is working. In 1996, researchers studying calls to Poison Control Centers reaffirmed that poinsettia exposures did not result in toxicity. In 2004, Poison Control Centers received 2206 calls about poinsettia exposure, which made the poinsettia responsible for 3 percent of the phone calls for plant exposures. Plant-exposure calls to Poison Control have fallen over the past decade, as have calls about poinsettias, which have dropped every year in both number and percentage from 2004 to 2014. In 2014, poinsettia exposures accounted for only 343 calls, representing .77 percent of the phone calls for plant exposures. 

The decrease in calls to poison control do not tell us that children are eating poinsettia any less often, or that people aren't buying poinsettias as often, although either could be true. It may suggest that the publicity campaigns like this one sponsored by the Society of American Florists are working to restore the poinsettia's good name. 

This article originally appeared on Parent.co.