Ask the Pharmacist: Plants that are toxic to children and pets

Suzy Cohen

You know how I love to use plants as "medicine" and frequently recommend herbs to you?

Well, there are certain plants that are dangerous, especially at this time of the year. Not all plants are medicine!

Holiday plants are sometimes poisonous.  Many poisonings happen during travel because some people don't realize that holiday plants are dangerous and they decorate with them. Then you show up with your baby, or your pet and something happens. Here are tips to stay safe: 

Christmas trees

If you love the scent of a beautiful living Christmas tree, I recommend you feed it with plain water. Commercial preservatives are not necessary. Most brands induce stomach upset and vomiting to children and pets who crawl around the floor and take a sip of the water in the Christmas tree stand. Some commercial tree preservatives (or home-made versions) contain anything from harmless ingredients like corn syrup or soda to more dangerous ingredients such as bleach, whiskey or aspirin.

More:To keep real Christmas trees from drying out in Florida, buy early, water often

Green leaves and red berries of Holly tree.

Holly berries

Branches of the holly tree (often called “boughs” of holly) are beautiful holiday decorations and frequently used to add color to mantles, table settings and even food! Be careful with this one because the berries are poisonous to both humans and animals. If you accidentally ingest the berries, it can cause local irritation in your mouth as well as severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and weakness. There have been fatalities.

Keep holly boughs up and away from children and beloved pets or alternatively, buy silk or plastic versions of holly for your home decor. If you insist on fresh holly boughs, you should remove the red berries before placing it if you have little visitors coming, or pets. Here’s why that’s a smart move: When the holly dries out in your home, which is pretty quickly, the berries fall off the plant and become a danger to children and pets.

Red flowers on Poinsettia plant.


The poinsettia plant blooms with those stunning big red flowers! It also has varieties that bloom in white and cream.  This plant is often considered deadly but it’s not usually fatal if eaten. The poinsettia sap in the leaves and flowers can be irritating if children and pets chew on it, especially because it causes a painful mouth, lip or skin rash. If swallowed it will also cause cramps and stomach upset. But it doesn’t kill.

Winter berry holly and mistletoe background.


The kissing sprig. If you pass beneath the mistletoe, you can get one planted on you! It’s a well-known holiday tradition and symbol of love! American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) is different and safer, compared to its European cousin known botanically as Viscum album.

In a study examining 1,754 American mistletoe poisonings, almost all the cases were children (92% of exposures) and they were all cases from chewing and swallowing the plant. There were no fatalities. So again, American mistletoe is not toxic like European mistletoe, but here in the states, it’s come down to guilt by association. I do not recommend eating or consuming any part of the plant, however smooches are perfectly fine!

Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. The information presented here is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition. Visit

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