Beware the Mistletoe

Mistletoe hanging near holiday lights

No, I don’t mean beware the creepy holiday guest who steals a kiss while you stand unwittingly beneath a sprig of mistletoe. I mean beware the potential toxicity of holiday plants such as mistletoe.

Poisonous plants are perhaps not the most cheerful of topics, but one that I admit I’ve become somewhat obsessed with after researching the subject (spoiler alert) for my novel Double Blind.

Some holiday plants are toxic and should be kept out of reach of children and away from pets. Children may be especially drawn to the berries and tempted to taste them.

Eating just a few berries of mistletoe can result in mild gastroenteritis, acute diarrhea and vomiting. In severe cases, this can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood pressure changes, and even death. All parts of Mistletoe are toxic. European mistletoe (Viscum), containing the poisonous alkaloid tyramine, is somewhat more toxic than the American mistletoe (Phoradendron), containing a toxin called phoratoxin, but both species cause similar symptoms.

The red berries of holly (Ilex) are toxic; ingesting even a few berries can cause vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness and dehydration. Since holly berries can dry out fairly quickly, they may drop from plants where children and pets can find them. Although the berries are most commonly eaten part of the plant, the bark, leaves, and seeds are also toxic. The poison is theobromine, an alkaloid that is also found in caffeine and chocolate, but the concentration is much higher in holly berries.

The beautiful Amaryllis plant is also poisonous. The toxin, lycorine, is an irritant of the gastrointestinal tract. The most toxic part of Amaryllis is the large bulb, which is a common holiday gift. Eating the bulbs can cause abdominal pain, cardiac arrhythmias, and convulsions. Although the bulbs are more likely to be eaten by pets than children, lycorine is considered toxic to humans.

Despite common belief, Poinsettia is not poisonous. Rubbing the milky sap from the plant into your skin can give you an itchy rash (but then, why would you do that?). A child or pet that eats a few leaves may feel ill or vomit but beyond that, Euphorbia is not particularly dangerous.

Best to stick to the roast beef, string beans, and potatoes…but, if someone you are with has ingested any of these plants, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

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Sara Winokur

Sara Winokur

SARA WINOKUR is a Ph.D. molecular geneticist whose research has been published in many scientific journals, including Human Molecular Genetics, Nature Genetics, and Cell/Stem Cell. As an ovarian cancer thriver, Sara has dedicated her life to family, friends, and her second career as an author of historical fiction and forensic mysteries. When not wandering the globe, Sara lives with her family and writes in Southern California. Double Blind: The Icelandic Manuscript Murders is her debut novel.

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