Published on 11/21/06

Holiday greenery doesn't come with warning labels

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Recent concerns about lead in artificial greenery have many holiday decorators turning back to nature. But be careful what you grab, a University of Georgia expert says.

"Many people worry about accidentally bringing poisonous leaves in the house during the holiday season," said UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist Paul Thomas. "That's not the item they should worry about the most."

The real problem is not the leaves on the holiday wreath but the vines that make up the base of the wreath and any berries used to decorate it.

Wretched wreaths

"It's becoming popular to make your own wreaths by going out to the woods and getting grape and kudzu vines to make the basic form," Thomas said. "They do make great wreath framing. But when people are pulling down vines from a tree, they often make the mistake of grabbing poison ivy vines and mixing them in the wreath."

Most people looking for decorative vines are looking for ones that are the width of a finger and become bendable when soaked in warm water.

"Middle sections of poison ivy vine fit that description," Thomas said. "The only way to tell which vines are poison ivy is to look at the base of the vine. If the vine looks 'hairy' or has hundreds of tiny, root-like things attaching to the tree or rock, leave it alone!"

Grape vines have long, flaky bark and may have remnants of a single tendril every so often. Woody kudzu vines are smooth all the way to the base.

Left outside, where the oils are inert, poison ivy vines can be relatively harmless. "But when they get inside and get warm," Thomas said, "the oil can volatilize or be released from the vines. That's when everyone in the home gets poison ivy."

The best way to tell the difference, he said, is to get a good botanical book. Study how the vines look in your area. Make sure you can tell the difference. Many Web sites have images that can help you identify woody vines.

Be careful with berries

Thomas says 99.9 percent of plants in holiday decorations aren't deadly. But you still need to be cautious if you have kids or pets. A good rule is that if the berry is fleshy and soft, like a grape, remove it. If it's hard or very firm, keep it.

"Mistletoe berries (which are fleshy and soft) are deadly, but can simply be removed before bringing the greenery indoors," he said. "Holly, yew and juniper berries can make you very ill if you eat a great many. However, the taste is so unappealing that this rarely happens. One berry or two won't harm people or pets."

But nobody would want to risk a sick child or pet during the holidays. So Thomas recommends placing any greenery with berries up out of reach of children.

"If you have a wreath on a door or greenery on the mantel, you should be fine," he said.

Keep an eye out for berries that happen to fall onto the floor. They can be irresistible to small children. Dogs and cats usually leave the berries alone.

Wet is best

Dried greenery can be a fire hazard.

"All plant material, once it dries out, is flammable," Thomas warned. "Christmas tree boughs are the most flammable. Common sense dictates that we don't place candles in arrangements of dried woodland materials."

Keep pine branches wet and use them just before your holiday events, for the same reason you cut Christmas trees fresh and provide water to your tree. There are products you can spray on the leaves and stems to make them less flammable.

"It takes about 10 days for untreated woodland materials to dry out. Hopefully, by then, the holiday season's over and you can make them into compost," Thomas said.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.