Welcome to The Nondenominational Holiday Botanical Celebration! AKA: What You Might Not Know About Popular Seasonal Evergreens. When you think of “parasite” I’m sure something really lovely comes to mind, like tapeworms or bot fly larva, but I would have been surprised if you would have said mistletoe. We’ve all seen it dangling ominously above doorways come the holiday season— —those little leafy branches, tied together with an adorable bow. But did you know that mistletoe is actually an obligate hemiparasitic plant? That means it can’t finish its life cycle without first latching onto a tree host and then sucking out all of its water and mineral nutrients. Just to clarify, there are two common types of mistletoe. You have the American mistletoe and the European mistletoe. While the berries of American mistletoe are harmful, beware European mistletoe. The leaves of European mistletoe are heavily toxic and can not only lead to gastrointestinal problems, but can also result in sloughing of the GI tract and toxicity of the liver. Deaths associated with ingesting parts of this plant occurred when individuals attempted to make tea out of the leaves. So, just keep that in mind the next time you’re sneaking a quick peck underneath this parasitic and potentially fatal bundle of traditional joy. Poinsettias are another delightful botanical accent that liven up an office or living room during the holiday season. These perennial shrubs in the genus Euphorbia are relatives of rubber plants and are members of the spurge family. The white, sap-like material that oozes from the leaves— and yes, these are the leaves of the plant, not the flower— is latex. Because of this some people fear that poinsettias may be toxic, but fear not; according to a 2006 article from the British Medical Journal, in a case study of more than 22,000 individuals, not a single person reportedly died from poinsettia overdose. In fact, only 4% of those people even required medical treatment for ingesting the plant. Pro-tip: don’t ingest the plant. The study went on to say that even if you ate up to 600 poinsettia leaves you would probably be okay, but you should feel bad for going through a holiday store and grazing off of their festive flora. The genus Ilex comprises the entire holly family, with 400 to 600 different species, but the one most commonly sold and seen around the holiday time is European or English holly, Ilex aquifolium. Although its waxy leaves are ‘harmless’ (good luck arranging a bouquet of those bad boys), we’re seeing a familiar trend of red parts equal bad luck. And no, they aren’t berries, they’re actually drupes, which means it’s a fruit with a waxy outer layer covering the squishy bits that cover a hardened pit that protects the seed. Other common drupes include peaches, mangos, coffee, olives, cherries, pistachios. Everything your grocery store is telling you about seasonal fruits is a lie! Anyway, like I was saying, the drupes of the holly plant are indeed toxic if ingested. They contain saponins, a soapy kind of compound that won’t kill you but it will give you a bad case of the poo’s. Saponins are used by the plant to protect its precious goods, and indeed, precious they are, as drupes are only found on the female plants. This makes holly a dioecious plant, meaning the lady bits are on one plant and the male bits grow on an entirely separate plant, and then they have to come together in order to make little drupe babies. This differs from other flowering plants which may be hermaphroditic, meaning that the male and the female bits are all in the same flower. If you thought human sexuality was complicated, just check out some of the terminology for plant reproduction. To SPRUCE up your home, festive conifer evergreens have been used for centuries across a variety of religious beliefs. Wreaths and trees of the fir, spruce, and pine varieties are most commonly used. The needles of these varieties can indeed be harmful if ingested in large quantities, but I challenge anybody to even be able to consume them in large quantities. I don’t actually challenge you to do that. The larger hazard associated with holiday trees has largely been avoided since the late 19th century, when people went from decorating their trees with candles to using electric lights instead. I don’t know if you’ve realized this yet, but trees are, you know, flammable. The National Fire Protection Association has reported that U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 230 house fires caused by conifer aflame every year. These fires cause an average of 6 deaths, 22 injuries, and $18.3 million of property damage annually. Happy Holidays!