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12 Popular Christmas or Holiday Plants: Poisonous or Safe?

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

Poinsettias were once considered to be very poisonous but are now classified as non-toxic or only mildly toxic.

Poinsettias were once considered to be very poisonous but are now classified as non-toxic or only mildly toxic.

The Joy of Traditional Christmas Plants

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, some popular Christmas or holiday plants are poisonous for humans and animals. 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.

Which Christmas Plants Are Poisonous? Which Are Safe?

I’ll cover these 12 popular plants in this article. I give some facts about each species and discuss any safety concerns about the plants.

  1. Holly
  2. Mistletoe
  3. English Ivy
  4. Yew
  5. Poinsettia
  6. Coleus
  7. Christmas Cactus
  8. Cyclamens
  9. Amaryllis
  10. Christmas Rose
  11. Jerusalem Cherry
  12. African Violet


Sensitivity to plant chemicals can vary. A plant may cause a problem for some people 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.

1. Holly

The shiny green leaves and bright red berries of holly are a cheerful and festive sight. I admire wild holly on my walks instead of bringing it home. Where I live, the wild species is Ilex aquifolium, or English holly. It's an attractive plant, but it's classified as invasive in British Columbia.

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 toxins in holly berries. The toxins are present in the rest of the plant too, but they are most concentrated in the berries. The red berries may be especially appealing to young children or pets, who often like to put things in their mouth.

Theobromine and Other Toxins in Holly Berries

Researchers and other reliable resources agree that holly berries are toxic, but there is disagreement about the degree of toxicity. There is agreement that the more berries that are eaten, the greater the probability of injury, and that children are more susceptible to harm than adults.

One toxin in the berries is said to be theobromine, an alkaloid chemical that is also found in cocoa and chocolate and is quite similar in structure to caffeine. The chemical is not toxic for humans in the latter products but may contribute to the toxicity of holly berries due to its higher concentration, its formulation, and/or its reaction with other chemicals in the plant. The berries are said to contain additional toxic molecules, which may be more or less harmful than the theobromine.

Theobromine poisoning can cause gastrointestinal problems (stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea) as well as dizziness, a rapid pulse, and low blood pressure. The chemical 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.

2. Mistletoe

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.

Mistletoe in a tree

Mistletoe in a tree

Poisonous Mistletoes

The word "mistletoe" actually refers to many different species of plants. The specific toxins in a mistletoe and the danger that it presents depend on its identity.

European Mistletoe

The species that is most commonly associated with Christmas is the European mistletoe, or Viscum album. This plant has paired, oval leaves and yellow-green flowers. In the fall and winter, the plant bears clusters of white berries that have a waxy appearance.

The leaves and berries of European mistletoe are poisonous. They contain several chemicals that can cause severe gastrointestinal problems. The website of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew states that although "as few as three or four berries" can cause a stomach ache in a child, poisoning is rarely serious in people. However, according to the website, some dogs have died due to European mistletoe poisoning.

North American Mistletoes

In North America, the native mistletoes belong to the genus Phoradendron. The species used at Christmas resemble the European mistletoe. Some species are more dangerous than others, but all of them should be treated as potentially harmful if they're brought into a house. They contain a substance called phoratoxin. This can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, blurred vision, a slow heart beat, and low blood pressure.

English ivy growing outside

English ivy growing outside

3. English Ivy

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.

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 in general 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.

Mature and immature cones of the European yew, or Taxus baccata

Mature and immature cones of the European yew, or Taxus baccata

4. Yew

A yew is an evergreen tree or shrub in the genus Taxus. It 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 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 that 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.

Though most poinsettias are red, other colours are available.

Though most poinsettias are red, other colours are available.

5. Poinsettia

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 and rash, however.

The University of Minnesota reference shown below says that the plants are not harmful to humans. On the other hand, it recommends that a person wears gloves when handling the plant and avoids contact with the eyes and mouth.

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".

A close-up photo of a patterned coleus leaf; the red pattern in the center reminds me of a Christmas tree

A close-up photo of a patterned coleus leaf; the red pattern in the center reminds me of a Christmas tree

6. Coleus

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.

The word "coleus" is both a genus name and a common name. The houseplant is either non-toxic to humans or is only slightly toxic, but it is toxic to pets. Touching the plant may cause mild skin irritation in humans, and eating the leaves may cause mild gastrointestinal pain. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs and cats, which may occasionally be bloody.

In a home without pets, coleus can be a beautiful plant to display indoors at Christmas and during the rest of the year either indoors or outdoors. This assumes that any children in the family are mature enough to know about the potential problems that it can cause.

This is one of my Christmas cactus flowers. The plant lives indoors, but I took it outside to photograph it.

This is one of my Christmas cactus flowers. The plant lives indoors, but I took it outside to photograph it.

7. Christmas Cactus

The Christmas cactus is my favorite holiday plant. Mine bloom in November instead of at Christmas, but the appearance of the colorful flowers always gets me in the Christmas mood.

Based on our current knowledge, Christmas cactus is not poisonous for humans, dogs, or cats. Since I have both dogs and cats in my family, lack of toxicity is a very important factor in my decision to buy a houseplant. 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.

8. Cyclamens

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. As in the case of the word "coleus", the word "cyclamen" is used as both the genus name and the 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.

Cyclamen Toxicity

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, 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.

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.

Amaryllis belladonna or belladonna lily

Amaryllis belladonna or belladonna lily

9. Amaryllis

Amaryllis is another plant with the same genus and common names. It produces clusters of beautiful, trumpet-shaped flowers that come in a variety of lovely colors, including a deep Christmas red. The plants are generally easy to care for and are beautiful additions to a home. Unfortunately, Amaryllis is potentially toxic for people and pets.

Amaryllis contains a toxin called lycorine, which is most concentrated in the bulb of the plant. This is the same toxin that is present in daffodil bulbs. 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.

A flower of the Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger

A flower of the Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger

10. Christmas Rose

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, 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.

11. Jerusalem Cherry

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.

12. African Violets

I've read that African violets in bloom may be hard to find at Christmas, but they are available from November onwards in my local supermarket. They are obviously designed to attract the Christmas market because they are located right next to the Christmas cacti and are often placed inside little carrying bags that are decorated with Christmas scenes.

Several species in the genus Saintpaulia are known as African violets. Saintpaulia ionantha is the most common species sold as a houseplant in North America. The species is native to Tanzania and is found in tropical forests.

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.

A Christmas tree is an essential part of many people's celebration.

A Christmas tree is an essential part of many people's celebration.

Christmas Trees and Greenery

Many people wouldn't dream of celebrating Christmas without a Christmas tree. In some homes the tree may be an artificial one, but many families still prefer to bring a real tree into their home.

Evergreens make good Christmas trees and provide branches that become part of Christmas wreaths and table centerpieces. They also provide cones, which add a nice touch to holiday decorations.

Firs, spruce, pine trees, and cedars are the trees that are most often used as Christmas trees and as greenery for decorations. They are only very mildly toxic and usually cause no problem, since children and pets are generally uninterested in eating them. The needles would be prickly and painful to eat. If they were put into the mouth or swallowed they would likely injure the lining of the mouth and the digestive tract. The decorations on a tree or centerpiece are usually more interesting and potentially more dangerous for children and pets than the plant itself.

A relatively minor problem is that some evergreens that are brought indoors at Christmas, such as cedar, produce an oil that can irritate the skin (and the mouth). I have to wear gloves and long sleeves when I'm handling cedar or I end up with an itchy rash where the leaves have brushed against me. Another point to consider is that while the Christmas tree itself may not be a problem, the additives placed in the tree water to prolong the plant's life may be harmful for pets.

The Toxicity of Plants: Some Points to Consider

Some plant poisons are dangerous for everyone, even when ingested in tiny quantities. In other cases, the degree of toxicity varies. Toxicity of a plant is determined by:

  • the nature of the poison
  • the plant part that is eaten
  • the concentration of the poison in that part at the time of ingestion
  • the amount of plant material that is eaten
  • the body size of the person or animal ingesting the poison
  • the health of the individual ingesting the poison
  • individual susceptibility to harm from the poison

Some of these factors are unknown, so it's wise to be very careful with toxic plants.

Mildly and Very Toxic Plants

People who want to buy plants for Christmas should think about their individual circumstances. Factors that should be considered include the age of any children in the family, the presence and type of pets in the home, and the potential toxicity of the plants.

Most people would never bring a very toxic plant into a home that contains young children and pets. It might not be so easy to make a decision about mildly toxic plants. It certainly wouldn't be a pleasant Christmas for a child or pet who develops a gastrointestinal upset due to eating a plant.

Some people may have a safe place to put plants that is out of reach of young children and pets. This is probably a good tactic for any house plant if there are toddlers in the family. In other cases, a plant may have such a low toxicity that a person may not be worried about where to put the plant indoors, especially if children are old enough to understand warnings about dealing with the plant. Pets that can climb or are good jumpers should be considered in the safety assessment, however.

Safe Plants

Luckily, non-toxic Christmas plants are available and are the only type that I buy. I have both a Christmas cactus and an African violet in my home. I love my pets, and I enjoy having houseplants in my home. I keep my indoor plants in an area that would be difficult for my cats to climb, though they could jump. So far, however, they have left the plants alone. We all get along very well together.


  • Poisonous plants from North Carolina State University
  • “Safe and Poisonous Garden Plants” from the University of California (This article discusses some plants that are kept indoors.)
  • Danger of holly berries from the National Poison Control Center in the United States
  • Holly plant from British Columbia Drug and Poison Information Centre
  • Information about the European mistletoe from Kew Science and the Royal Botanic Garden
  • Yew poisoning from MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health
  • Poinsettia facts from the University of Minnesota Extension
  • Information about African violets from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Toxic plant list for dogs, cats, and horses from ASPCA

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 19, 2014:

Hi, georgescifo. Thank you for the comment. It's a shame that you lost your white poinsettias!

georgescifo from India on November 19, 2014:

great list. I used to have white poinsettias at my home few years back and as it grow too thick and got out of control, my father cut them into the ground...

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 19, 2014:

Thank you so much for the visit and the lovely comment, Peg. I appreciate the share and the pin, too!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 19, 2014:

This timely hub is useful to those of us who will be bringing in plants this year for Christmas and for gifts. Your photos are so gorgeous and crisp they look like they could be touched right through the page. I was surprised at many of the facts you presented, in particular, about the Poinsettia. They grew so naturally in Florida we had them every year. Sharing and posting to Pinterest.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2013:

Thank you, MM Del Rosario. I appreciate your comment!

MM Del Rosario from NSW, Australia on November 22, 2013:

Well written hub. Great information especially for plant enthusiast!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 13, 2013:

Hi, tirelesstraveler. I've actually written a hub about the use of taxol (paclitaxel) from yew as an anti-cancer drug. Taxotere sounds interesting, too. Yew certainly has its benefits as well as its disadvantages! Thanks for the information and the visit.

Judy Specht from California on November 13, 2013:

Curiously a prime chemotherapy drug is derived from the yew tree. It is call Taxetere.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 12, 2013:

Thank you so much for such a lovely comment, Prasetio. I appreciate it very much! Thanks for the vote, too.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on November 12, 2013:

You always be the best here, as your passion in sharing useful information like this one.. again..and again. Thank you very much. Voted up :-)


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 12, 2013:

Hi, Crafty. Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it.

CraftytotheCore on November 12, 2013:

Such gorgeous pictures and fascinating facts! I didn't know there were so many varieties of mistletoe!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

Thank you very much for the visit and comment, Pamela. I have three cats and two dogs, so I'm also very concerned about poisonous plants in the home!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 11, 2013:

This is excellent information to know as I have two cats and am concerned about what is poisonous for them. An excellent hub for the holiday season.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

Thank you very much, Bill. I appreciate your comment, vote and shares. Plant safety is something we're concerned about in my family, since we have lots of pets. I hope you have a great week, too!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 11, 2013:

Linda, what a well researched and timely hub. Between our dog and the grandkids running around here it's good to know what's toxic so we can take precautions. This one should do very well with the holidays coming. Great job. Voted up, shared, pinned ,etc... Have a great week.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

Christmas plants are so much fun! I enjoy them outdoors if I decide not to bring them indoors. Wild ivy and holly with berries are growing near my home, so it's easy to see them on a walk. Thank you very much for the comment, votes and share, Faith. Blessings to you, as well!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

Yes, it is interesting. Plant toxins are widespread. Luckily, there are still some good choices that can be made for Christmas house plants. Thanks for the visit, EGamboa.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

Thank you for the lovely comment, DDE. I appreciate the vote, too.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on November 11, 2013:

This is a most timely article here to inform all of those poisonous Christmas plants, we all seem to have in our home during the Christmas season for sure. I knew of the Poinsettia as being poisonous only because my mother told me so. I love Holly, and have bushes around my home and love to cut branches and use mixed in with decorative arrangements during Christmas. I also have the English Ivy growing by leaps and bounds against the brick walls on one side of my driveway and along the sidewalk leading up to my front door. So ... I am surround by poisonous plants to say the least. I am sure many will be surprised at many of these plants.

Another important and informative hub here.

Up and more and sharing

Blessings, Faith Reaper

Eileen Gamboa from West Palm Beach on November 11, 2013:

It's interesting that the most popular plants associated with Christmas have some sort of history with toxicity.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 11, 2013:

Twelve Christmas or Holiday Plants - Poisonous and Safe so beautiful plants and I have learned so much here about each of these plants. The photos are beautiful. An informative, useful, interesting and I vote up on this hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 10, 2013:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, drbj. Yes, they are beautiful plants. It's a great shame that some of them are poisonous.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 10, 2013:

Thank you, Alicia, for this important information about Christmas plants. They are all very beautiful - too bad that some of them may be toxic to small children as well as pets.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 10, 2013:

Hi, Bill. Thanks for the comment. It is easy to forget about a plant unless it's in a part of the home that we often visit!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 10, 2013:

Thank you, Martie! I love coleus plants. Their leaves are so beautiful! I don't have one in my home, though, because there are cats and dogs in my family.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 10, 2013:

Great information Alicia. I love indoor plants but mine always die; I keep forgetting that I have them. :)

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 10, 2013:

Another most informative article about safe and poisonous Christmas plants. I love all the plants you are featuring in here, Alicia.

Once upon a time I collected Coleus - a variety of the most beautiful colours.

Voted up and absolutely excellent.

Still 100! Congratulations!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 10, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Martin. It is interesting that such popular plants can be toxic!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on November 10, 2013:

Thank you for this. Mistletoe here. Who would have guessed?