Almost as persistent as the seasonal rumors of this oversized elfin breaking-and-entering specialist who shoehorns himself down the chimneys of America are the fake, false and entirely untrue rumblings of poinsettia poisoning that make the rounds every holiday season. If we are to credit one recent poll, no less than 57 percent of American women and 42 percent of men either earnestly or at least passively believe that the radiant Euphorbia pulcherrima is lethal holiday trouble just waiting to rear its crimson head wherever there are curious pets and toddlers.
Relax, countrymen, for it is not so. According to POISINDEX, the information resource used by the majority of U.S. poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat more that 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (as the crimson “flowers” are more properly called—they’re actually showy, specialized leaves) to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity in laboratory tests. That’s between 500 and 600 of those gorgeous red spears.
So, then: decorative poinsettia salads all round, to go with all the post-holiday turkey leftovers? No. As with other non-food items, the ingestion of poinsettia bracts may still cause mild stomach discomfort—but nothing more. The same can be said of nickels, modeling clay, paste and that weird friggin’ cave-ripened fruitcake your Aunt Shirley sends you every year. Like all things, poinsettias, too, shall pass.
Now that those nagging dreads of a holiday poisoning have (hopefully) been put to rest, what say to a little poinsettia in lore and history? Thought you’d be game. The story goes that a bonnie wee Mexican lass named Pepita did so earnestly want to bring a fine present to the Christ child at a church service many Christmas Eves ago, but was unable to afford a suitable offering. On the counsel of her cousin Pedro, she gathered a bouquet of lowly weeds from the roadside, buoyed by Pedro’s belief that the humblest of gifts, given in love, would be acceptable in His eyes. The humble weeds burst into bloom at the feet of the Christ child, from whence moment they were called Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night—a triumph of conversational convenience over cuetlaxochitle, as the weed was called by the Aztecs, who used the bracts to make a reddish purple dye and a medicine for fever from the plant’s latex.
In English, the poinsettia is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, who brought the plants back to his greenhouses in South Carolina and began propagating them for friends and family. Today, annual poinsettia sales in the U.S. exceed those of all other potted plants combined. And not just the red kind, either; today’s poinsettia enthusiast can choose from dozens of varieties in shades of white, yellow, pink, red, cream, peach and many with variegated bracts, including those that are striped, marbled and spotted. Choose specimens with thick, stock stems, deep color, and leaves that go all the way down the stem. Position your poinsettias out of drafty areas and keep the soil moist—not too wet but not too dry. And, just to be safe, don’t eat them.