Christmas is a fun meaningful holiday spent with family and friends. Family or personal traditions are very popular during this time of year. One of these traditions is decorating with a variety of plants, garlands and trees. Unfortunately, some popular holiday plants can be poisonous or toxic, especially to children and pets. Here's a look at some of the most common poisonous holiday plants along with some reassurance about plants many people think are poisonous that really aren't dangerous at all.
A child can eat 1-2 holly berries without harm, but around 20 berries can cause death. So eating holly berries is a serious concern for children and pets. Though the berries are the part that is most commonly eaten, the bark, leaves, and seeds are also toxic. The poison in these plants is theobromine, an alkaloid that is related to caffeine. Theobromine is found in chocolate (and is toxic to dogs even at the lower concentration), but there is much more of the compound in holly berries.
Mistletoe is a name given to one of several plants, all potentially dangerous for kids and pets. Phoradendron species (North American Mistletoe) contain a toxin called phoratoxin, which can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood pressure changes, and even death. The Viscum species (European Mistletoe) contain a slightly different group of chemicals, including the poisonous alkaloid tyramine, which produce similar symptoms. All parts of the mistletoe plant are poisonous, though it is the berries that may be most attractive to kids. Eating 1-2 berries probably will not cause a problem for a child, but a small pet could be endangered by eating a few leaves or berries.
An amaryllis bulb is a common holiday gift. Amaryllis, daffodil, and narcissus bulbs may be forced indoors to produce beautiful holiday flowers. They produce clusters of beautiful, trumpet-shaped flowers that come in a variety of colors, including a deep Christmas red. Eating the bulbs (and leaves, though they are less toxic) can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cardiac arrhythmias, and convulsions. The plants are more likely to be eaten by pets than children, but the alkaloid poison lycorine is considered toxic to humans, too.
Cyclamen is a flowering plant commonly seen around the winter holidays. Cyclamen tubers contain triterpinoidsaponins which can be toxic. Ingesting tubers may be more problematic than eating the leaves or flowers, depending on the amount that's ingested. The tubers taste bad, however, which reduces the chance that they will be eaten. In addition, they are hidden in the soil of a pot. If a child or pet knocks the pot down and breaks it, or if a pet likes to dig in the soil of a plant pot, it will be easier to get to the tubers, however. Cyclamen poisoning may cause severe vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by significant fluid loss, leading to dehydration. It may also cause heart rhythm abnormalities and seizures. Toxicity depends on the quantity ingested.
Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum)
The Jerusalem cherry is a species of nightshade that bears poisonous fruit. The primary poison is the alkaloid solanocapsine, which can cause headache, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, and slow breathing in humans, but generally is not life-threatening. However, the fruits are extremely toxic to dogs and cats. The fruit resembles a cherry tomato, both in appearance and flavor, so kids and pets may eat enough to cause illness, or in the case of pets, even death. The leaves of the plant and unripe fruit contain the highest concentration of toxin.
English ivy (Hedera helix)
English ivy is often used in Christmas decorations. It's a climbing and creeping vine. Handling English ivy can cause severe contact dermatitis, or skin inflammation, which may be accompanied by blisters. This is the most dangerous aspect of the plant for most people. Ivy is poisonous when taken internally, although a large amount of plant material needs to be eaten to cause symptoms. These symptoms can be serious and include a burning sensation in the digestive tract, breathing difficulty, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, hallucinations, and seizures.
Yew (Taxas baccata)
A yew is an evergreen tree or shrub that has needles for leaves and bears colorful red berries. The red arils and green needles make yew look very much like a Christmas plant. Using the plant in Christmas decorations is a bad idea, however, because it's very poisonous for people and pets. Yew contains chemicals called taxines which quickly cause an irregular heartbeat after being eaten. The alteration in the heart rate can be life-threatening. Yew poisoning can also cause a headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, trembling, convulsions, dilated pupils, and a coma.
Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)
The Christmas rose has white flowers that resemble wild roses. It flowers in the middle of winter and is a joyful sight at Christmas time. The flowers are white or pale pink and may be single or double. The Christmas rose is another poisonous plant whose toxicity depends on the amount that's eaten. Eating the plant can result in a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, depression, and a slow heartbeat.
Christmas trees - cedars, pines, and firs are very mildly toxic. The biggest concern here is the possibility of puncturing part of the gastrointestinal tract from eating needles, though the tree oils may cause irritation of the mouth and skin. Toxicity might be affected by whether the tree had been sprayed with a flame retardant. People don't usually eat Christmas trees and even a dog is unlikely to eat enough of the tree to cause a problem.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
The beautiful poinsettia is not something you want on a salad, but it is not particularly dangerous. If you eat a few leaves, you may feel ill or vomit. Rubbing the sap from the plant into your skin can give you an itchy rash. Beyond that, this plant is unlikely to cause a problem for either humans or pets. For many people, a poinsettia in the home is a traditional part of Christmas. The poinsettia has mistakenly had a reputation as a poisonous and potentially deadly plant for some time.
The National Institutes of Health says that poinsettia is "not poisonous" for humans. ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) says that poinsettia is toxic for dogs and cats, causing stomach upset and occasional vomiting, but also states that the plant is "generally over-rated in toxicity".
An important point that many do not know is that the Poinsettia is in the same plant family as natural rubber latex and shares two common allergen proteins. Forty percent of individuals with a latex allergy develop cross-sensitivity with the poinsettia plant. Symptoms vary from rare immediate hypersensitivity, allergic contact dermatitis, or irritant contact dermatitis. There has been the rare report of anaphylactic shock from poinsettia in infants with atopic eczema and latex allergies. Families that include members with atopic eczema or latex allergy may want to avoid using poinsettia as a decorative addition to their holiday.
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera)
The Christmas cactus is my favorite holiday plant. The appearance of the colorful flowers always gets me in the Christmas mood. Christmas cactus is not poisonous for humans or pets. The cactus is long-lived and very easy to care for. It's available with pink, red, purple, orange, yellow or white flowers. The stems are made of flat, leaf-like pads joined to each other in a chain. The cactus has no leaves.
Enjoy the beauty of the season, but If you suspect a child, adult, or pet has consumed a toxic plant - get a sample of the plant and put it in a plastic bag to take with you to the healthcare provider or veterinarian. Always seek medical assistance or call your local poison control center for guidance.