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Trust the experts and not the neighbors on this one: The poinsettia plant, despite its reputation for being deadly, is not considered a poisonous plant and has never killed anyone.

I know, you've read somewhere that poinsettias are toxic - supposedly it's a proven fact. And you've heard the claim repeated annually, so there must be some truth to it.Does this mean you believe in a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose, too?

Why do people worry that babies and small pets might even think of eating poinsettia leaves, as opposed to, say, a Christmas tree branch or a mistletoe sprig?

It's because we've been brainwashed by this piece of seasonal folklore. It also may be because the name "poinsettia" sounds slightly like the word "poison."

People frequently send me photocopies from books listing dangerous common plants. The authors insist poinsettias are poisonous and have caused children's deaths.

I should send them all copies that I have made from the American Medical Association's "AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants," a standard physicians' reference book. This source reports that, "Euphorbia pulcherrima (the poinsettia's scientific name) has been found to produce either no effect or occasional cases of vomiting."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission describes the poinsettia as "a non-food substance which if eaten could cause some discomfort."

The earliest trace of "The Poinsettia Myth" that I have been able to find is a 1919 published account of the death of an Army officer's son in Hawaii. At first, his death was thought to have been caused by his eating poinsettia leaves.

This diagnosis was later disproved, but the erroneous first report has been repeated many times since in a variety of sources.

One reader suggested that perhaps an insecticide applied to greenhouse plants might be what gave the poinsettia a bum rap.

There are two problems with this theory: First, no children have died from eating poinsettias, and second, many other greenhouse plants are similarly treated without becoming the subjects of scare stories.

Another reader wrote to say that his dog had died within a few minutes of ingesting the "button" of a poinsettia. But an autopsy did not establish that the "button" was the cause of the animal's death.

This reader feared, "What might happen if a 20-pound child were to eat part of a poinsettia plant?"

Well, research done at Ohio State University in 1975, when a proposal was made to put warning labels on poinsettias, concluded that a 50-pound child could eat more than 500 poinsettia leaves without becoming seriously ill.

Frequently, people send me copies of an Ann Landers column from March 1987, containing a letter from a distraught woman whose house cat supposedly died from eating poinsettias that had been sitting around since Christmastime.

I save copies of the column from different newspapers, as evidence of how folklore is transmitted. I assume that other people save the column to remind themselves to guard against the deadly Christmas plant.

However, many readers seem to have missed Landers' retraction. She cited government and university research that has conclusively disproved the poinsettia's reputation as a killer.

Last year I stayed away from the poinsettia myth, but just before Christmas, "Dear Abby" responded to a letter inquiring about it. Abby debunked the myth, writing that, "The beautiful poinsettia plant rates a clean bill of health - and comes out smelling like a rose!"

(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.