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The Facts About Poinsettia

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Date: Wed, 16 Nov 1994 08:21:55 EST
To: Multiple recipients of list GARDENS
Subject: Poinsettia Media Campaign (fwd)

Poinsettia Phobia Continues to Dampen the Holiday Spirit Fifty percent of Americans still believe poinsettias are toxic

If the Ghost of Christmas Present were to look into our living rooms today, he'd find that we're more afraid of poinsettia poisoning than of finding coal in our stockings. According to a recent national poll, half of Americans mistakenly believe that poinsettias are toxic.

"It's a testament to the persistence of myths," says Paul Bachman, marketing chairman of the Society of American Florists (SAF). "Poinsettias simply are not toxic. That was proven 23 years ago in scientific tests and we want to set the record straight."

In fact, no other consumer plant has been as widely tested as the poinsettia. Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) have measured the effects of ingesting unusually high doses of all parts of the plant (including the leaves, stems and sap) and found the plant to be non-toxic. According to POISINDEX (R), the information resource used by the majority of U.S. poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity.

That's not to say you should eat one, though. Like other non-food items, if ingested, the poinsettia may cause some stomach discomfort -- but nothing more.

Despite sound evidence to the contrary, the poinsettia phobia continues. A recent Bruskin/Goldring Research poll of 1,000 Americans commissioned by SAF found that 50 percent of those polled said they believed poinsettias are toxic if eaten. Only 16 percent correctly know that they are not. Another 34 percent said they don't know.

Some respondents more misinformed than others

The myth is widespread, but some population segments are even more likely than others to be believers.

Women out-believe men by a wide margin -- 57 percent of women said they believe poinsettias to be toxic, compared to 42 percent of men.

Americans aged 25 to 49 are also more likely to suffer poinsettia phobia than those aged 50 and over.

Geography also seems to play a role. Americans living in the Northeast believe the myth in higher numbers (57 percent) than those living in the west (44 percent).

The Power of Speech

If Americans aren't getting this misinformation from science journals, where is it coming from? Among people who believe that poinsettias are toxic, 43 percent said they learned it by "word of mouth." Not far behind was the media, cited by 37 percent.

Poinsettias pass the test

The original source of this myth? Hearsay. For nearly eight decades, this rumor has continued to circulate because of one unfounded story in 1919: that an Army officer's two-year-old child allegedly died after eating a poinsettia leaf. While never proved by medical or scientific fact, and later determined to be hearsay, the story has taken a life of its own. But the defenders of the poinsettia have pulled out all the scientific stops to allay public fears.

SAF worked with the Academic Faculty of Entomology at OSU to exhaustively test all parts of the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). OSU researchers established that rats exhibited no adverse effects -- no mortality, no symptoms of toxicity and no changes in dietary intake or general behavior patterns -- when given even unusually large amounts of different poinsettia parts. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) accepts animal tests as valid indicators whether any product or natural growth is harmful to human health.

...and more tests

The OSU research was conducted 23 years ago, and other sources have continued to reinforce the poinsettia's safety.

According the the American Medical Association's Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, other than occasional cases of vomiting, ingenstion of the poinsettia plant has been found to produce no effect.

After reviewing all available poinsettia-related information, the CPSC denied a petition in 1975 to require warning labels for poinsettia plants.

Perfectly harmless, perfectly holiday

Despite its continued circulation, the myth of the poinsettia is gradually losing steam. "It may just have to run its course," says Bachman. "But we do want people to know that there's absolutely no reason to miss out on this favorite holiday plant. Spread the word."

Additional contacts:

Chin Chu Morley or Jenifer Shockley
(202) 466-7590
Society of American Florists
1601 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-3406

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