Traditional Plants at Christmas
by Dorinne Whynott, Animal Care Center of NH & Professional Pet Sitting Etc.
A big Thank you to Todays Veterinarian, Cornwell Manor and Den Garden for some of this valuable information. Keeping everyone, including pets safe, during the holidays is essential. I learned a few things that I never knew! I hope this helps you and your pets as well.
Christmas is a fun festival for many people and is often a very meaningful celebration as well. Family or personal traditions are especially popular at this time of year. Bringing special plants into the home and admiring their flowers, fruits or leaves is often one of these traditions.
Unfortunately, many popular Christmas or holiday plants are poisonous for humans and animals (consider them toxic to both dogs and cats as well as other pets).
This probably won’t be a problem for adults or older children, who aren’t likely to eat any part of a toxic plant and are probably prepared to wear gloves if necessary when handling the plant. It may very well be a problem for young children or pets, however. Luckily, there are some non-toxic plants that are an enjoyable addition to a home at Christmas time.
The shiny green leaves and bright red berries of holly are a cheerful and festive sight. One potential problem with bringing holly indoors is the fact that the prickles on the leaves can damage the skin, mouth and digestive tract of a child or pet. Since the leaves would be painful to eat, however, they aren’t likely to hurt anyone by ingestion.
A more serious concern is the toxin in holly berries. The toxin is present in the rest of the plant too, but it’s most concentrated in the berries. The red berries may be especially appealing to young children or pets, who often like to put things into their mouths.
Theobromine in Holly
The toxin in holly is theobromine, an alkaloid chemical that is also found in cocoa and chocolate and is quite similar in structure to caffeine. Theobromine poisoning can cause gastrointestinal problems (stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) as well as dizziness, a rapid pulse and low blood pressure. The more berries that are eaten, the more likely that sufficient theobromine will be ingested to cause poisoning.
Theobromine is especially dangerous for dogs because their bodies break it down very slowly. This is why chocolate is poisonous for them. Interestingly, although holly berries are toxic for humans, dogs and cats, they are edible for some wildlife.
Kissing underneath a piece of mistletoe is a popular Christmas tradition in some countries. The custom is supposed to bring good luck, especially in marriage.
Mistletoe is an interesting plant. It’s an evergreen parasite that grows on the branches of trees and shrubs and inserts projections called haustoria into its host. The haustoria absorb mineral nutrients and water from the host.
A mistletoe plant is classified as a hemiparasite instead of a full parasite because it isn’t entirely dependent on its host for survival. It has green leaves and can carry out photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants make their own food from simple nutrients, using light as an energy source.
English ivy (Hedera helix) is often used in Christmas decorations. It’s a climbing and creeping vine that looks very attractive as it trails out of plant containers. The plant is toxic for humans and pets, however.
Ivy grows in the wild and is also cultivated. It has two kinds of leaves. The vegetative or non-reproductive part of the plant has leaves with pointed lobes and the flowering part has oval leaves. The leaves are usually dark green but may also be green and yellow, which is a popular color combination in cultivated ivy. The flowers are small and yellow-green in color and are borne in clusters. They produce blue-black berries.
Handling English ivy can cause severe contact dermatitis, or skin inflammation, which may be accompanied by blisters. This is the most dangerous aspect of the plant for most people.
Ivy is poisonous when taken internally, although a large amount of plant material needs to be eaten to cause symptoms. These symptoms can be serious and include a burning sensation in the digestive tract, breathing difficulty, gastrointestinal problems, delirium, hallucinations and seizures.
A yew is an evergreen tree or shrub that has needles for leaves and bears colorful red “berries”. Yews are conifers, or cone bearers. The berry is actually a structure called an aril that develops from a modified cone scale. Each aril surrounds one seed.
The combination of red arils and green needles make yew look very much like a Christmas plant. It’s sometimes used for this purpose. Using the plant in Christmas decorations is a bad idea, however, because it’s very poisonous for people, pets, horses and livestock. Interestingly, as is the case for holly berries, some wild animals feed on yew arils without being poisoned.
Yew contains chemicals called taxines which quickly cause an irregular heartbeat after being eaten. The alteration in the heart rate can be life-threatening. Yew poisoning can also cause a headache, dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, breathing difficulties, trembling, convulsions, dilated pupils and a coma.
Laurel plants including bay laurels (which are often used in cooking) and cherry laurel, contain toxins located in all parts of the shrub which cause vomiting, abdominal pain, hypotension and in extreme cases, muscle weakness and even seizures.
For many people, a poinsettia in the home is a traditional part of Christmas. The plant is native to Central America and was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett was the first US minister to Mexico.
The scientific name of the poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima. The plant grows as a shrub or small tree. The red “petals” are actually bracts, which are specialized leaves that surround a flower. The flower of the poinsettia is small and pale in color.
A careful pattern of light and dark periods is necessary to get the normally green bracts of a poinsettia to develop their typical red color. Plant breeders have created plants with a variety of other bract colors, including pink, orange, white and marbled.
Toxicity of Poinsettia
The poinsettia has had a reputation as a very poisonous and potentially deadly plant for some time. Researchers are now saying that poinsettias are not poisonous or only slightly so and that the early assessment of the plant’s toxicity was flawed.
Eating part of a poinsettia will probably produce no symptoms at all or at worst produce only mild nausea and perhaps vomiting. A person will probably never get to the nausea and vomiting stage because many leaves have to be ingested to cause any effects. This isn’t likely because the leaves taste bad. Contact with the sap of a poinsettia may cause the skin to develop a mild itch, however.
The National Institutes of Health says that poinsettia is “not poisonous” for humans. ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) says that poinsettia is toxic for dogs and cats, causing stomach upset and occasional vomiting, but also says that the plant is “generally over-rated in toxicity”.
Coleus is an attractive and popular plant that often has variegated leaves (those that contain more than one color). Some have a lovely mixture of red and green – the Christmas colors. The colors are arranged in a variety of interesting patterns. Plant breeders are creating lots of new and very appealing varieties of coleus.
Coleus is non-toxic to humans but is toxic to pets. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs and cats, which may occasionally be bloody. In a home without pets, however, coleus is a beautiful plant to display indoors at Christmas and during the rest of the year either indoors or outdoors.
Christmas cactus is not poisonous for humans, dogs or cats. The cactus is long-lived and very easy to care for. Mine seem determined to flower near the end of each year, no matter how they’ve been treated during the rest of the year.
The Christmas cactus belongs to the genus Schlumbergera, which is native to Brazil. It’s available with pink, red, purple, orange, yellow or white flowers. The stems are made of flat, leaf-like pads joined to each other in a chain. The stems are green and carry out photosynthesis. The cactus has no leaves.
Cyclamens have beautiful flowers with upright petals that are sometimes twisted. They also have attractive, variegated leaves. The flowers may be pink, red, purple or white and often have a lovely fragrance.
The species of cyclamen that is most often sold by florists is Cyclamen persicum. The word “cyclamen” is used as both the first word in the scientific name and as a common name. Cyclamen persicum normally becomes active during autumn, winter and spring and enters dormancy during the summer. It flowers during late winter or early spring.
Cyclamens develop from a tuber that forms on an underground stem called a rhizome. The plants contain chemicals called triterpenoid saponins, which are toxic. These chemicals are most concentrated in the tubers.
Ingesting tubers may be more problematic than eating the leaves or flowers, depending on the amount that’s ingested. The tubers taste bad, however, which reduces the chance that they will be eaten. In addition, they are hidden in the soil of a pot. If a child or pet knocks the pot down and breaks it, or if a pet likes to dig in the soil of a plant pot, it will be easier to get to the tubers, however.
Cyclamen poisoning may cause severe vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by significant fluid loss from the body. It may also cause heart rhythm abnormalities and seizures. The Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University considers cyclamen to be “toxic only if large quantities eaten”, however.
– also paper whites, daffodils, snow drops and other bulbs
These produce clusters of beautiful flowers that come in a variety of lovely colors, including a deep Christmas red in the Amaryllis. The plants are generally easy to care for and are beautiful additions to a home. Unfortunately, Many of these are potentially toxic for people and pets.
Bulbs contain a toxin called lycorine, which is most concentrated in the bulb of the plant. Eating bulb tissue (or a very large amount of leaf or flower tissue) can cause stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors and convulsions.
The potentially harmful effects of Amaryllis are reflected in an alternate name for one species of the plant, which is belladonna lily. Belladonna is another name for the deadly nightshade plant, which is very poisonous.
The ASPCA website contains a list of plants that are toxic for cats, dogs and horses. It states that Amaryllis is toxic for pets and lists similar symptoms to those that appear in humans.
The Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger, has pretty white flowers that resemble wild roses in form (though not always in color). It flowers in the middle of winter and is a delightful sight at Christmas time.
The flowers are white or pale pink and may be single or double. A double flower has more than one layer of petals. In the case of Helleborus niger, however, the “petals” are actually sepals. The real petals are inconspicuous.
The Christmas rose is another poisonous plant whose toxicity depends on the amount that’s eaten. Eating the plant can result in a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, depression and a slow heartbeat.
The Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) is a member of the nightshade family of plants. It produces orange-red berries that can add to the festive atmosphere in a home at Christmas time. The plant is also known as the winter cherry and the Christmas cherry.
The fruits of the Jerusalem cherry are sometimes confused with cherry tomatoes. This is a serious mistake, since Solanum pseudocapsicum is poisonous. The plant contains a toxin called solanocapsine. The leaves and unripe fruit contain the highest concentration of the toxin.
The assessments of the Jerusalem cherry’s danger vary widely and range all the way from “mildly poisonous” to “deadly”. It seems like a good idea for families with young children or pets to avoid this plant and err on the side of safety. Symptoms of poisoning include headache, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness and slow breathing.
African violets don’t have typical Christmas colors, especially the purple or blue forms, but they are pretty and colorful plants. They are available with pink flowers for people who prefer this color and feel that it matches the Christmas theme better. It’s always nice to have flowers in bloom at Christmas time, though, whatever their color. Very importantly, African violets aren’t toxic for people or pets.
Eating just a small amount can lead to acute kidney failure or death in cats and dogs!
This plant needed to be added to the list. As lilies are given throughout the year for all occasions.
I would consider ALL lilies to be VERY dangerous for cats and potentially FATAL. They contain highly toxic substances and ingestion of just two or three leaves, or even water from the vase, can be potentially fatal. The calla lily, peace lily, lily of the valley and palm lily, are all deemed dangerous to pets.
I, personally, would not consider buying or giving any lilies for any occasion because of its risks.
Christmas trees are the ultimate Christmas season plants. Common species include firs (Abies and Pseudotsuga species), pines (Pinus species), cypresses (Cupressus species), spruces (Picea species), and cedars (Juniperus and Cedrus species). Most Christmas trees are cut before being brought into the house, although some have a root ball so the tree can be planted outdoors after the holidays. Cut trees are usually placed in a stand with a reservoir for water. Frequently, preservatives containing dextrose and fertilizers are added to the water. Drinking the preservative–water mix typically causes only mild, self-limiting gastrointestinal upset. If the water is not routinely changed, bacterial or fungal overgrowth can occur.
Pets may ingest needles, cones, branches, and bark. Most Christmas trees contain essential oils (concentration and specific oils vary by species). Ingestion of large quantities of needles, cones, and parts of the tree may result in a gastrointestinal foreign body. Other reactions may include vomiting, anorexia, abdominal pain, and depression
Kalanchoe has only recently been associated with Christmas. These plants can be forced to bloom during winter, and red kalanchoes are popular Christmas gifts. Because this is a year-round houseplant, ingestions can occur at any time. Dwarf varieties are used as houseplants.
Kalanchoe is a cardiotoxic plant. The toxic principle is bufadienolides, which are found in all parts of the plant, but are concentrated in the flowers. Dogs are reported to be especially sensitive to the cardiotoxic effects of bufadienolides. However, most of the potted dwarf varieties of kalanchoe cause only mild gastrointestinal effects; cardiovascular signs are uncommon.
Rosemary is known as the herb of love and remembrance. A small evergreen shrub, it has a rich, pungent flavor and a pleasant aroma. Although exposure to rosemary occurs year round, rosemary is often trimmed into a pine tree shape for a miniature Christmas tree.
Rosemary contains a variety of volatile essential oils. In small quantities (such as the amount used in cooking), no toxic effects are seen. However, large ingestions, such as eating the plant, can result in gastrointestinal upset and irritation, as well as renal and neurologic effects.
Small to moderate ingestions may cause nausea and vomiting, as well as diarrhea. Large ingestions, in addition to gastrointestinal signs, may cause hypotension, weakness, pale mucous membranes, depression, acute kidney injury, and seizures.
Star of Bethlehem
Star-of-Bethlehem is a perennial plant that grows from a bulb. Most plants are grown outdoors, although some dwarf varieties are potted. Because of the star-shaped petals, this plant is frequently included in bouquets around the Christmas holidays. All parts of the plant are toxic, although the toxins are concentrated in the bulb.
Keep in mind
Sensitivity to plant chemicals can vary. A plant may cause a problem for some people or pets but not others. In addition, the safety status of a species may change as researchers learn more about it. The plant’s reputation for safety may improve as more studies are done (as the poinsettia’s has) or worsen. These points need to be kept in mind when reading about plant safety.
Happy and safe this holiday season to all!
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Dorinne Whynott, is a long time animal professional. She is a successful business owner establishing one of the largest pet sitting companies in New Hampshire since 1990 and opened her life long dream of an Animal Center, purchasing a huge building and starting the Animal Care Center of NH in 2020. Click to Read her complete History.
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