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Have a Holly Jolly Christmas

December 17, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral , Cape Coral Daily Breeze


Garden Club of Cape Coral

JOLLY-cheerful, exhibiting good humor. This is what we hope for in this holiday season. So, let's examine some of the plants we surround ourselves with at this time, and how to stay safe. We don't need to do without, but recognizing hazards has a way of diminishing the chance of taking careless risks.

First, there is Holly. Did you realize that holly berries contain high levels of theobromine, the same stimulant found in chocolate? But, there is more of the compound in holly berries, red berries that look like cranberries. A child can eat one or two berries safely, more will cause nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain,but 20 will cause death. Eating a berry or two provides the same pick-me- up as caffeine, but even those two are very hazardous to dogs. Berries are the most commonly digested part of holly, but the bark, the leaves and seeds are also toxic. It is best to call Poison Control, your Pediatrician or the Vet. Be prepared to answer these questions---what did the child or pet eat? How much did they eat? How long ago? Give symptoms and their vital signs.

Now for some good news. Poinsettias are the most popular Christmas plant sold in the United States. This plant became associated with the holiday as the result of a Mexican legend. It comes in a variety of colors, from white to red and mottled colors. The colored bracts, of course are not the flowers or blooms. Those are the tiny yellow blossom in the middle of the colorful bracts. Poinsettias may, at one time have been harmful because of the herbicides and pesticides used in growing them, but now they are more of an irritant to some people, caused by their white milky sap. Years ago, the floral industry had a person come on TV and eat a leaf to prove no harm would come to them, and it didn't. A child may ingest 250 poinsettia leaves,that would lead to a serious stomach problem. It may not be something you would serve as a salad, so don't overdue a good thing, or just don't do it at all.

Next is our fun one. We all know about the power of mistletoe to create Christmas romance. Wander beneath the hung mistletoe, and wait for a kiss. Everyone is fair game to puckered lips. There are 1,300 species of mistletoe in the world, and only 2 are native to the United States, American mistletoe and dwarf mistletoe. Phoradendron, the scientific name for American mistletoe, means "thief of the tree" in Greek. It's not a true parasite, but it does sink its roots into a host tree. A few centuries ago, people observed bird droppings and it so happened that mistletoe rooted there. In Anglo-Saxon, "Mistal" means dung and "tan" means twig, so mistletoe means dung on a twig. Actually, it had little to do with dung, but more with the birds. Mistletoe seeds are very sticky and cling to the birds beak or feathers and fall off as the birds perch in the trees. Dwarf mistletoe's seeds explode from their berries and shoot as far as 50 feet. But alas, it is toxic to humans, and not some animals, for which it provides high-protein food. It is also an important pollen and nectar for bees. All parts are poisonous.

Lots of people like to give Amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum) for a gift. Along with daffodils and narcissus bulbs, eating the bulbs and leaves with the alkaloid poison, lycorine is toxic. Years ago, in France, I read about a grandmother going to the root cellar to get onions, and accidentally brought up daffodil bulbs. Poisoned all who ate the dinner. So mark your stored items well.

Another tuberous plant to watch for is the lovely Cyclamen. They contain triterpinoidsaponins that cause vomiting and paralysis, which is more of a concern for pets. Some cyclamen cultivars are used for tea with their delicate flavors.

Christmas trees---there is a fear of needles puncturing intestines, sap creating itching and bark causing abdominal pain. My biggest danger alert is to keep a real tree well watered and misted to prevent it from drying out and going up in flames. Also, check the wiring on the lights to be sure none are frayed or exposed. Be careful with burning candles too near a dry tree. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 240 home burned between 2005 and 2009 from Christmas tree fires.

And lastly I recently read about the most upsetting one I know, and hope this situation is long solved. My cherished orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking. At my age, this was the only time of year when I was young that I ate oranges. Here in America, we have standards that don't allow pesticides to be used on citrus, but about 5 years ago in the United Kingdom, they found dangerous pesticide residue in every orange examined, especially in the orange peel where the chemicals concentrate. Zest peel that is used in baking and cranberry sauce, and my candied orange peel. A reason to remember, not to use chemicals on any homegrown edible plants.

I don't really mean to alarm you at this holiday season, or dampen your parade, but these are things to think about, and not dwell on. Common sense has safely gotten us this far and 'tis not the season for paranoia.

Have holly jolly Christmas, or Burl Ives will haunt you (and he may, if you have Christmas music playing). A Merry Holiday season to all. Don't forget. Thank a plant for our fresh air.

Joyce Comingore ia master gardener, on the National Board Director of the American Hibiscus Society, Arbor Day chairman for the Fort Myers / Lee County Garden Council, Federated Tree chairman for District IX and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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