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Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia


Though some say poinsettia is deadly and others claim it is non-toxic, the truth lies in between. This popular Christmas decoration is of very low toxicity and rarely, if ever, causes symptoms of poisoning.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the poinsettia is just one of a series.



Meaning of the Name

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Named for Euphorbus, the 1st century Greek physician to King Juba II of Numidia or Mauritania depending on which source you read. These two adjacent African kingdoms are part of modern Algeria. A literal translation could be 'plenty of food' but that seems an odd name to ascribe to a poisonous genus.

The adjective of the Latin 'pulcher' meaning 'pretty'.

Common Names and Synonyms

poinsettia, Christmas star,  Mexican flameleaf, Christmas flower, lobster plant, painted leaf

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

There is an annual virtual battle between websites stating that poinsettia is a deadly poison and those claiming it is not toxic. Both are wrong. Poinsettia is poisonous but the toxicity is so low that there is very little chance of anyone ingesting a sufficient quantity of the plant to produce symptoms. As such it provides a perfect example of the difference between 'poisonous' and 'harmful'.

Even sites that claim the plant is not toxic usually say that ingestion of a substantial quantity of leaves could result in gastrointestinal upset.

The Washington Poison Control Center lists it as being capable of causing nausea and diarrhoea due to its ‘minor toxicity’ as well as being capable of causing dermatitis from contact.

Like all Euphorbias, it has a milky sap that can cause skin problems if not washed off.


It is sometimes said that children have died but without offering any support for that statement.

If any evidence is offered it is related to a case in 1919 when a 2-year old child, in Hawaii, was found dead under a poinsettia tree holding, it is alleged, a leaf. Subsequent investigations have established that poinsettia was not implicated in the death.

The American Association of Poison Control Centres Annual Report for 2010 records over 53,000 'incidents' involving plants. Of these, 750 related to poinsettia. The AAPCC includes simple information calls in its figures so there is no way of knowing how many of those 750 calls involved actual plant ingestion.

Folklore and Facts

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

It is said that poinsettias were first part of Christmas in 16th century Mexico when a poor girl was told by an angel to offer weeds as a gift and the angel turned the leaves into a beautiful red display. It was introduced to the USA in the 1820s by Joel Roberts Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico at the time, and though it achieved some popularity it was not until the 1950s that plant breeders started trying to produce a plant that would rapidly grow into a small bush covered in the red leaves. Very clearly, the ‘tradition’ of having poinsettia in the house at Christmas was commercially driven.

Given that the plant is difficult to keep from one year to the next and it is even more difficult to get it to produce its characteristics red leaves after the first year, it is an ideal plant for retailers as most people will buy new each year.

So sensitive to the term poisonous is the horticultural industry that it sponsored research that demonstrated that poinsettias caused no serious harm. The research correctly determined that the toxicity of the plant is very low but the conclusion that poinsettias were not poisonous looks like erring on the side of the sponsor’s interests.


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.


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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree