Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Please Don't Eat the Christmas Tree

One of the most observed rituals of the Christmas season is decorating for the holiday. Most Christians, and many non-Christians adorn their homes with lights and festive plants in bright colors.  And every year, about 25,000 people are injured by this cheery greenery.

Although it is difficult to find exact statistics, The New York Poison Control Center reported that every year, about 20% of all calls it receives involve plants, so while holiday plants are great gifts, and everyone loves them, it is important to be aware of the dangers, both to children and to pets. Like you do with everything else in your home, keep toxic plants out of reach.

Let's take a look at the most popular Christmas plants:

Pointsettia: This beautiful Christmas flower has gotten a bad rap over the years. While it isn't something you want to put in a salad, it also isn't particularly dangerous. While eating a few poinsettia leaves might cause nausea or vomiting, research shows that only ingestion of very large amounts of this plant may be harmful. If you rub the milky sap from the plant on your skin, you might get an itchy rash. Beyond that, poinsettias are unlikely to cause a problem for your children or your pets.

Holly: The stiff green leaves and bright red berries are often very attractive to children. In many homes, holly is a traditional decoration for Christmas. Since medieval times, the plant has carried a Christian symbolism (remember the hymn, "The Holly and the Ivy"?) Well,  holly berries are highly toxic. Ingestion of even twenty berries could result in death. Though the bright red berries are the part of the plant most commonly consumed, the bark, leaves and seeds are also toxic. You might have heard that chocolate is lethal to dogs. Well, the poison compound in holly is in the same caffeine family as the toxic chemical in chocolate, but many times more concentrated in holly parts. DO NOT EAT HOLLY!

Amaryllis: An amaryllis bulb is a common holiday gift. Amaryllis bulbs (as well as daffodil and narcissus bulbs) may be forced to bloom indoors, to produce showy holiday blooms. Eating the bulbs can cause abdominal pain, cardiac arrhythmias, and convulsions. The leaves are slightly less poisonous, but shouldn't be eaten either. Amaryllis bulbs are more likely to be eaten by pets than by children, so keep them out of reach of both your pets and your kids.

Jerusalem Cherry: The Jerusalem cherry is actually a species of nightshade. The fruit looks and tastes like a cherry tomato. Kids might eat enough to cause nausea and vomiting, but generally it is not life-threatening to humans. Pets are a different story. It is highly toxic to animals, and probably birds too. Do NOT allow your pet to to eat Jerusalem cherries.

Boxwood: Commonly used in holiday wreathes and draping, the twigs and leaves of boxwood contain a toxic alkaloid. Ingestion could result in severe stomach problems, convulsions, and even respiratory failure. Do NOT eat boxwood.

Christmas trees:  Coniferous trees maybe toxic if eaten in very large amounts. Small amounts may cause irritation and stomach upset, or can cause aspiration or obstruction. Since the needles or foliage of a Christmas tree are generally sharp, it is unlikely that either pets or children will chow down on one. A skin rash may result from coming in contact with the sap, though. (In spite  of what Euel Gibbons espoused back in the 1970s, pine cones are  not toxic but are not edible either.) So discourage your pets and children from snacking on the Christmas tree.

I saved the best for last, so you would read this far.

Mistletoe: This is the most powerful Christmas plant of all. It makes holiday romance democratic, by making everyone equally kissable - friends, strangers, and distant cousins. Wander beneath a sprig of mistletoe, and like it or not, you become fair game to anyone whose lips are within range. And it is unarguably the most interesting of the Christmas plants.

The scientific name is phoradendron, meaning "thief of the tree" in Greek. While not a true  parasite, it comes close, sinking its roots into a host tree and leeching nutrients for photosynthesis. The translation of the word  mistletoe isn't romantic either.  Mistal means "dung" and  tan means "twig", so actually mistletoe means "dung on a twig".

Mistletoe contains a toxin that,  when consumed by humans, can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and even death. ALL parts of the mistletoe plant, including the berries, are poisonous. Eating one or two berries probably will not cause a huge problem for a child, but can cause death in your pet. If your child consumes mistletoe, it is a good idea to seek medical advice.

So there's the lowdown on the most common Christmas plants. If you think your child may have ingested a plant, call the Poison Control Center.

My gift to you is this instruction: RIGHT NOW. While you're thinking about it: Post the number for the National Poison Control Center on your refrigerator. Put it in your cell phone. Memorize it.
It is  800-222-1222. You're welcome, and Merry Christmas!

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