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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
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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