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Are Poinsettias as Dangerous as Everyone Says?

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Poinsettias are as indispensable to Christmas as evergreen trees and mistletoe. Every year, they come out of the greenhouses and off the store shelves into our homes, and every year, some well-meaning but factually-challenged aunt or family friend warns us that we shouldn’t have the plants out around the baby or the cat or the dog because they’re extremely poisonous.

This idea originated in 1919, when a 2-year-old child in Hawaii reportedly ate the leaves of a poinsettia and soon fell ill with diarrhea, vomiting, and delirium, and then died. While never confirmed as a case of poisoning, the story got repeated over and over and eventually the deadly poinsettia entered into modern urban mythology.

In reality, while Euphorbia pulcherrima is not something you want to be munching on, it’s certainly not a killer.

Since fingers were first pointed at it in Hawaii, plenty of research has been done on the poinsettia, and none of it has turned up anything to be alarmed about.

Lab Rats

Researchers have dosed animals with poinsettia leaves and flowers and applied the plant’s sap to their eyes and skin. They’ve observed their behavior and cut them open to examine their intestines. In these experiments and others, the ingested poinsettia never led to signs of poisoning (sap on the skin is another story, and we'll get to that in a minute).

The highest experimental dose of poinsettia that I was able to find in a study was 25 grams per kilogram of body weight, which led to no toxic effects in lab rats. The researchers who did this study say that, assuming no species variation in reactions, a 50-pound child/dog/enormous cat would need to eat about a pound and quarter of poinsettia leaves to reach that dosage.

Different animals do have different levels of tolerance for toxins, though, and scavengers like rats tend to be more tolerant than others. But because we can’t directly test poinsettia toxicity in humans in a lab—pesky ethics and all that—we have to rely on the animal model to give us an idea of toxicity. Even if we’re only in the ballpark, though, getting anywhere near that experimental dose would still require a person or pet to eat a few hundred poinsettia leaves, which are reportedly incredibly bitter and awful tasting.

Real World Cases

What researchers can also do to study toxicity in humans is look at cases of actual poisonings outside the lab. In 1996, researchers from the Pittsburgh Poison Center and several area universities combed through more than 22,000 poinsettia exposure cases reported to poison control centers (almost 94 percent of which involved children). They found no fatalities, and in 92.4 percent of the cases, the patients experienced no toxic effect. Most of the rest experienced only minor symptoms. Only one case was reported as having a “major effect,” but a closer review of that case led the researchers to think that that was a actually coding error in the records.

Long story short: Despite Aunt Edna’s protests, the evidence says that poinsettias are so mildly toxic (if at all) that any amount a child or pet could bear to eat should be safe and will only result in minor to moderate symptoms like nausea and stomachache. The plant’s latex, though, can also irritate the skin and mucus membranes in both animals and humans, causing rashes and irritation. Unpleasant? Yes. Deadly? No.

Everything Else You Should Know About Poinsettias

The poinsettia originates in ancient Mexico, where the Aztecs cultivated it and called it cuitlaxochitl. They used extracts from its leaves to dye cloth, its sap to treat fevers, and the whole plant as a decoration and a symbol of purity in their religious ceremonies. The plant would not grow in their high-altitude capital, Tenochtitlan, so rulers would import them from lower-lying areas. Montezuma is said to have loved the plants so much that he sent caravans out to bring them back to his palace by the thousands.

In the 1820s, Joel R. Poinsett was appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. In addition to diplomacy, he was interested in botany. Taken with the beauty of the red and green plants he saw, he sent cuttings from some back to his greenhouse at home, and American horticulturalists soon began breeding it and marketing it as a houseplant. In 1836, botanists’ magazines and other sources began identifying the plant by the common name poinsettia, a clear nod to the man who introduced it to the U.S.

Aside from Poinsett, probably no one did more to popularize the poinsettia in America than the Eckes. In 1900, German immigrant Albert Ecke and his family traveled through the U.S. on their way to open a health spa in Fiji. When they reached Los Angeles, they decided to stop the journey and settle down there. They planted orchards and fields of flowers, including chrysanthemums, gladioli, and poinsettias.

The family eventually realized that the poinsettia, which bloomed in early winter near the holidays, could be a major money maker in the off-season. They began to aggressively market the plant as a “Christmas flower.” The idea wasn’t too far off, since the plant was already a part of Christmas decoration and ritual in its native Mexico, where Spanish-speaking Mexicans knew it as as la ?or de la nochebuena, or “the flower of the Holy Night.”

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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