Pity the poor poinsettia.

For years, the cheery holiday plant has been made to play the villain. People have warned their pet-owning friends against having the bright-red plants in the house unless they want to put their pets’ lives in danger. People in casual conversation say things like, “Oh, you don’t want poinsettias if you have cats.”

Well, it turns out poinsettia plants have gotten a bum rap over the years.

“Poinsettias are far less poisonous than people think,” said Lois Berg Stack, professor of sustainable agriculture and an ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Maine. “But the myth persists.”

Stack says poinsettias could cause “discomfort” if eaten by humans, especially people allergic to the milky latex found in the stems.

But other than that, most scientific evidence points to poinsettias as being far from the deadly menaces they are sometimes portrayed as.

Ohio State University recently did extensive research on the toxicity of poinsettias, and found they are basically not toxic. POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, lists the number of poinsettia leaves a child would have to eat to reach toxic levels as 500 to 600. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Veterinary Medicine Association have both issued statements saying pet owners do not have to worry about poinsettias being fatal to pets.

But both groups say keeping the plants out of easy grasp of pets is still a good idea, as they can cause upset stomachs, maybe even severe ones.

If the myths about poinsettias have you wondering about other plants and pets, here are some that are pretty but not safe for animals or children to ingest. The following descriptions come from the University of Pennsylvania:

• Foxglove — Pretty tubular flowers, but the plants have a highly toxic compound in them. In humans it can cause nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, tremors, convulsions and death. Similar reactions in animals.

• Lily — All parts of the plant should be considered toxic. Can lead to kidney failure in animals. Ingestion should be treated as an emergency.

• Delphinium — Seeds are highly toxic. Can cause abdominal pain, muscle spasms and breathing problems. Toxicity varies from species to species.

• Iris — Can lead to stomach problems or skin irritation.

SOME SAFER CHOICES

If you want to capture the holiday spirit with a plant other than a poinsettia, Stack recommends the following:

Red roses with white baby’s breath and a silver bow.

Red spathiphyllums with glossy evergreen leaves.

Christmas cacti are widely available and easy to maintain as a permanent houseplant. They produce red, pink, lavender or white flowers.

Red amaryllis plants, largest bulbs possible.

A large Norfolk Island pine houseplant could act like a mini Christmas tree, as it’s large enough to decorate. But no lights, as they can damage the plant’s buds.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]