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Deck the Halls With Boughs of Caution

December 6, 2016

Evergreens, holly, mistletoe and other traditional plants adorning homes at this festive time of the year can pose risks, says University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

In days of old, evergreens and other plants used for holiday decoration were rarely brought into the home before Christmas Eve, Trinklein said. Today, the holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and lasts through New Year’s. Any greenery and other cut plant material you bring into the home at the beginning of the season is likely to become dry by New Year’s Day and could pose a fire hazard, he said.

“When it comes to greenery, freshness is important since aged, dried material becomes more of a fire hazard in the home.” Relatively fresh greenery might be available from a local retail outlet, he said, but the freshest greenery is that which is gathered from one’s own landscape.

Wherever the source, Trinklein recommends placing cut ends of the greenery in buckets or tubs of water. Greenery from a retail outlet should have its stems re-cut before immersing them in water. Keep the plant material in the coolest place possible until it is time to move it indoors. Freezing temperatures will not harm the greenery, but unfrozen water should be available to the stems at all times during storage.

To promote safety and prolong useful life of holiday greenery, keep stems in water after moving them inside. Design decorations so branches fit into a container that holds water. Trinklein suggests adding floral preservatives such as those used for cut flowers. Change the water weekly since water can become foul if allowed to sit.

Never place decorations containing greenery near heat sources such as hot air ducts, radiators or appliances that produce heat. Don’t put greenery near fireplaces, where sparks from an open flame might ignite them.

Some traditional plants contain toxic compounds that might present a health risk, especially to children, Trinklein said.

For example, the red berries of holly are considered mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. These bright berries are quite appealing to young children. Keep holly well out of the reach of youngsters and make sure that any berries that might accidentally drop from the decoration cannot fall to the floor and be retrieved by a curious child, Trinklein said.

The leaves, bark and seeds of the common evergreen yew shrub are considered toxic. Yew produces a small red fruit that might be attractive to children. While the pulp of the fruit is harmless, the seeds, if chewed, can be quite toxic.

Mistletoe is a holiday plant steeped with folklore and tradition. However, use mistletoe with extreme care, Trinklein said. Both American and European types are highly toxic. Keep both kinds well out of the reach of children. If using fresh mistletoe, keep it wrapped with plastic so its leaves and berries can’t fall to the floor.

Source: David H. Trinklein, University of Missouri