Did you know that for 200 years Europeans believed that tomatoes were poisonous? Yep, up until the end of the 19th century the tomato was referred to as the "poison apple" and was thought to be deadly, especially to persons in the upper classes.

The misconception was fed by two factors:

  1. The tomato is part of the nightshade family of plants.  One of these plants is the deadly nightshade which is indeed poisonous.  Other nightshade plants may be harmful to humans; tobacco is a nightshade.
  2. According to Smithsonian Magazine, wealthy people in those days often ate their food off of pewter plates.  Tomatoes are naturally acidic and when served on pewter can cause lead to leach from the plates.  People mistakenly believed it was the tomato making them sick or causing death, when it was actually lead poisoning.

Even in the Information Age myths persist about certain plants being "poisonous".  For example:  poison ivy.  Poison ivy is not poisonous.  The rash one can get when coming in contact with the plant is actually an allergic reaction to urushiol which is an oily resin found in the the leaves, stems, and roots of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.  Contrary to public opinion a poison ivy, oak, or sumac reaction is not contagious unless one happens to somehow come in contact with urushiol that has not been washed off of an affected person's skin or clothes.

Another myth that persists is that the leaves of a poinsettia are poisonous, especially to children and pets.  A simple search of the internet will dispel this belief.  According to WebMD, there has never been a recorded death attributed to the eating of poinsettia leaves.  No one knows exactly how or when the myth got started.  As near as anyone can tell, it began in 1919 when two parents claimed their daughter had died as a result of consuming poinsettia leaves.  The truth is, a child or pet would have to eat about 500 poinsettia leaves to become ill, but then again, eating 500 of anything will make you ill.

Today is National Poinsettia Day, a day set aside to celebrate this beautiful plant that brightens Christmas in our offices, churches, and homes.  According to National Day Calendar, "The poinsettia plant’s connection to the Christmas season dates back to 16th-century Mexico. Legend tells of a girl who worried she had no gift to celebrate Jesus’s birthday because she was too poor.  An angel tells her to give any gift with love. The young girl gathered weeds from alongside the road and placed them in the manger. Miraculously the weeds bloomed into beautiful red stars."

Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American botanist and the first United States Minister to Mexico, introduced the poinsettia to the U.S. in 1825 in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.  100 years later Paul Ecke, a farmer in California, began selling the "Christmas flower" at roadside stands.  Ecke promoted the sales of poinsettias through shipping and marketing.

In 2002 the U.S. House of Representatives established National Poinsettia Day to honor Ecke.  The day is observed yearly on December 12th which is the anniversary of the death of Poinsett.