By Dale Peterson, MD Building Health

Decorating the home for the winter holiday season is a time-honored tradition, but it is important to be aware of potential risks to children and pets.

Some plants are completely safe, but others pose a risk if touched or if parts are eaten.


Live Christmas trees including pines, spruces, balsams, & firs are safe, but ingestion may cause some stomach upset or mouth irritation.  The cones are non-toxic.  Preservative solutions and artificial snow are generally non-toxic or of low toxicity.  It is important to tape down electrical cords because they present a shock hazard for children and pets.  Taping down the cords will also prevent a child or pet from pulling down the tree, an act that could cause injury.

Poinsettias were once thought to be highly poisonous, but this was disproven in the late 1970s by Ohio State University investigators.  They showed that a child could eat 500 – 600 leaves with no complication other than an upset stomach.  The sap, however, can cause a poison ivy-like rash and can irritate eyes enough to cause temporary blindness.

All parts of mistletoe plants are toxic.  It was once thought that ingestion of one or two leaves or berries would seriously harm children, but that is not the case.  Ingestion of large numbers of berries or leaves can trigger high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and hallucinations.  It can also be fatal   Eating small parts of the plant can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain, so be sure to immediately pick up any fallen leaves, branches, or berries.

Holly’s red berries are attractive to children.  Nibbling one or two will not cause a problem, but eating more can lead to nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea.  Ingestion of twenty or more berries may be fatal to a child.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) is popular for its clusters of scarlet berries.  It is commonly used to enhance the appearance of wreaths.  Eating the berries may result in abdominal pain, but should not be fatal.

Bittersweet is used to accent wreaths and dry arrangements because it carries clusters of orange berries.  Eating unripe berries can cause a slowing of the heart rate, sedation, and headaches.

Jerusalem cherry is grown as a houseplant for its brilliant orange to scarlet berries that appear during the fall and winter months.  Eating the berries can cause vomiting, restlessness or drowsiness, hallucinations and even seizures, but it is not considered fatal.

Jequirity Bean (also called Crab's Eye or Rosary Pea) is popular in Mexico.  It produces striking 1/3 black, 2/3 red berries that look like ladybugs.  The berries are strung for rosaries or necklaces.  Because they have a hard shell they are harmless if swallowed whole, but they are extremely toxic if the hull is broken.  Vomiting, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea & death are all possible consequences of ingesting the inner flesh of the berries.

Christmas cactus is so named because its purplish flowers appear around Christmas.  They are non-toxic.

I hope that your family has a wonderful time this holiday season.  Taking a few simple precautions when decorating your home can assure that your celebration will not be interrupted by an adverse reaction to one of the plants on display.


Dale Petersen MD

By Dale Peterson, MD- Building Health

Dr. Dale Peterson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Medicine. He completed his residency in FamilyMedicine at the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Oklahoma Academy of  Family Physicians. He had a full-time family practice in Edmond, Oklahoma, for over 20 years and was a Chief of Staff of the Edmond Hospital. He was active in teachingfor many years as a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine through the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.

Dr. Peterson left his full-time family practice in 1999 to consult with individuals who are seeking ways to restore and maintain their health through improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes. He founded the Wellness Clubs of America to give people access to credible information on supporting and maintaining their health.  His monthly wellness letter, Health by Design, and his Health by Design E-Newsletter provide helpful information to individuals interested in preventing and conquering health challenges.  He is the author of Building Health by Design:  Adding Life to Your Years and Years to Your Life .

Dr. Peterson speaks regularly on subjects related to health and nutrition. He hosted a weekly radio program,Your Health Matters, on KTOK in Oklahoma City for five years. For the past nine years he has addressed questions from across the nation on his Your Health Matters weekly teleconference.He offers a free video LifeXtension course at

Latest posts by Dale Petersen MD (see all)

Dale Petersen MDBuilding Health Medical ColumnChristmas Family Fun,Gardening,Health,Holidays  By Dale Peterson, MD - Building Health Decorating the home for the winter holiday season is a time-honored tradition, but it is important to be aware of potential risks to children and pets. Some plants are completely safe, but...Parenting Advice| Family Fun Activities for Kids