Happy holidays. Here are some questions and answers — a few holiday-related and others that are not.
Q: I was given a lovely poinsettia as a gift, and my cat wouldn’t leave it alone. I had to give it away. Is the poinsettia poisonous?
A: The poinsettia gets a bad rap as a poisonous plant because it was erroneously associated with the death of a young child in Hawaii many years ago. Poinsettia belongs to the euphorbia family, and while other members of this plant family contain toxins, poinsettia does not.
One estimate determined that a 50-pound child would have to ingest 500 poinsettia leaves to reach even potentially toxic levels. Accidental ingestion could cause mild digestive distress, but the plant (and its milky sap) are reported to be quite distasteful, making it unlikely that many leaves would be ingested by children or pets. As always, it’s recommended to keep these and all houseplants up and away from curious children or pets.
Q: Why is real mistletoe hard to find as a holiday decoration? I only see it in plastic.
A: Mistletoe is reputed to be toxic, although controversy surrounds this reputation. In several studies that reviewed the effects from accidental berry or leaf ingestion, few symptoms were reported and those symptoms were mild. Because of the potential for accidental ingestion, mistletoe is usually sold as a plastic sprig of green leaves and white berries.
The plant itself is a common parasitic plant that lives off host trees in southern Ohio and throughout the south. Mistletoe is spread by birds; they eat the fruit and then spread the sticky seeds onto trees. The seeds germinate and send out a structure that penetrates the tree bark, extracting vital fluids from the host tree. Although the plant is a tree parasite, it also plays a vital role in forest ecosystems by providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife.
Q: I normally stop treating my dog for ticks during the winter months. A friend told me I should actually be treating year-round. I thought ticks were dormant in cold weather.
A: While some ticks, such as the American dog tick, do become inactive in winter, the blacklegged tick is active year-round. This tick, also called the “deer” tick, is becoming of great concern as it spreads throughout Ohio. According to Dr. Glen Needham, acarologist (mite and tick specialist) with the OSU Department of Entomology, this tick is believed to be established in more than half of Ohio’s counties, including all counties that border Summit County. The blacklegged tick is a carrier of Lyme disease and several other tick-borne illnesses.
In winter, the blacklegged tick feeds on deer, mice and other mammals. Ticks have been collected in cold temperatures and even on snow. Hunters are at risk as they handle deer or bring infested deer onto their property. Ticks will dislodge from dead deer and can embed on human hosts or drop off to establish new populations. Immature ticks, which are also disease carriers, are small and difficult to see. People rarely think of performing tick checks after a wintry woodland outing, but this is an important tactic to prevent disease. Ticks need to feed for 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease.
Because dogs can contract Lyme disease, many experts now recommend treating dogs for ticks year-round. Vaccines are also available to protect dogs from Lyme disease, but no human vaccines are available.
Hunters, hikers and others active in woodland settings in winter should protect themselves by treating boots and outdoor clothing with products containing the pesticide permethrin. This product is applied to clothing, not skin, and will last through repeated washings. Hunting stores and catalogs often carry this product.
To remove an embedded tick, forget the folk remedies that supposedly get the tick to “back out” of the skin. Dr. Needham has studied these strategies, and insists that none of them work, including covering the tick with Vaseline, fingernail polish, alcohol or touching the tick with an extinguished match. What’s worse, these tactics can allow ticks to feed longer, increasing the danger of disease spread from tick to human. Ticks should be removed by pulling them gently but firmly with tweezers or fingers.
For more information on ticks, Lyme disease and bite prevention, visit the Ohio Department of Health’s website (www.odh.ohio.gov). County health departments can also help with tick and tick-borne disease questions.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.