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DON'T EAT THAT! Holiday Plant Sense and Safety Cold Holly by (Flickr) Poinsettia at the Monte by Ivy Dawned (Flickr) White Azalea by utahwildflowers (Flickr) blooming of christmas cactus by spablab (Flickr)

PLEASE DON'T EAT THE POINSETTIAS: Holiday Plant Sense and Safety

by Leigh Fulghum

Selecting live plants and flowers as gifts, or for decorating inside the home, sometimes requires consideration of the unpredictable behavior of excited children and pets who may be part of the household, or guests, and whether certain natural decorations may potentially be toxic or cause an injury.

More than plant poisoning, since plants can be placed out of reach, the greatest threat to babies, toddlers, and tiny pets is choking on interesting parts encountered close to or on the floor. Some seasonal plants and flower arrangements may have berries, leaves, cones, or needles which drop. While holly (Ilex) berries are dangerously toxic if a large number are consumed by a small creature, a baby choking on a single one is more likely. They are very attractive on the bush or the floor- and can go right into a little mouth before anyone notices.

Because the berries of live mistletoe (Phoradendron) drop soon after it is cut, live mistletoe is sold with plastic replacement berries. But plastic berries and other artificial embellishments added to decorate blooming or foliage plants, may also possibly drop off unnoticed in the bustle of a celebration, into the wrong hands (or paws).

Live greenery with berries cut from the outdoors, such as boughs of holly, Pyrancantha or juniper, will shed their fruit. And there's hardly a Christmas tree that doesn't lose needles. Only a few sharp needles if swallowed can cause choking or painful irritations in the mouth and intestines. Even if cut greenery, holly plants and mistletoe are prudently placed high on a shelf, the floor must be watched for intriguing droppings, possibly creating unnecessary daily maintenance and concern.

With the exception of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs being potentially fatal to cats, and daffodil bulbs being dangerously poisonous to dogs, commonly feared poisonous holiday plants are, in reality, mildly toxic, usually only when eaten in large quantities. Yet there is always the nutty dog who will take a sudden fancy to a plant, rip it apart and sometimes eat it to the roots. Sending a gift Poinsettia, the almost "official" Christmas plant, to friends with a hyperactive plant-eating dog or puppies, may result in some blistered mouths and vomiting. The same goes for decorative hot pepper plants whose very attractive fruits are loaded with irritating juices. Other popular potentially mild to moderately toxic plants abundant during the holidays are Cyclamen (bulbs), Jerusalem Cherries (Solanum), and lily bulbs.

Still, any of the above plant or flower gifts are probably safe choices for sending to mature friends, offices and grown-up households. But when in doubt consider the abundance of harmless, low-maintenance winter holiday plants which with the right container, wrapping, and bow are versatile enough for every sort of winter festival.

Nothing shows so bright and crisp in the evening or dim light like a luxuriant snow-white potted chrysanthemum. The 'Fuji' varieties of pot mums mimic white stars. Clustered potted white button mums suggest freshly fallen snow.

White azaleas go anywhere too, or choose from the array of azalea varieties in red, pink, purple, and salmon shades.

To make a plant and flower lover's dreams come true, send a well- developed topiary azalea. They are a treasure to own, and not usually a gift one buys for oneself.

Ivy topiaries are also unique decorative accents, with the advantage of being a very clean, low-maintenance holiday green. The persistent shopper will find ivies trained in tiered ball shapes, cones, and animals.

If there is a sunny place in the decor, evergreen enthusiasts will be more than pleased with a charming evergreen bonsai.

Sunny windows can be decorated with red mini-tearoses grouped in decorative window trays.

Phalaenopsis spp. orchids are always elegant and impressive, and one of the longest lasting blooming plants for indoors. They are non-shedding and easy care. The bloom spikes can produce flowers for months.

For a tropical Christmas ambience try white Phalaenopsis orchids mixed with red bromeliads- a very colorful, no fuss combination.

The spectacular and easy to grow Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera), might be the lowest maintenance of all blooming holiday plants. It is a leafless cactus, and its long shrimp-like blossoms appear at the end of what are flat, segmented stems. There are no thorns. It is a low-light cactus and requires only infrequent watering. It will live on as a houseplant through the year and bloom each winter.

Don't hesitate to ask your florist for help personalizing your gift plant presentation, or how to achieve your design goals for your own holiday decorations.

Holiday plants are luxurious and exciting to receive. Bringing plants and flowers into the home in the dead of winter has always been part of celebrating new life and hope for the future. So match the right plant with the recipient household and all will be well! We have come a long way from the days of having to make do with what we can find in the forest.

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