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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
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
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If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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