December 03, 2022

After I posted on the poinsettia, I got a suggestion from my niece that I should follow up about the mistaken concept that the leaves are toxic.  This idea was originally spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.  In 1944, the plant was included in H. R. Arnold’s book Poisonous Plants of Hawaii based on this premise.  Though Arnold later admitted that the story was hearsay (I heard the same thing growing up) and that poinsettias were not proven to be poisonous, the plant was still thought by many to be deadly.  The legend was revived in 1970 when the US Food and Drug Administration published a newsletter erroneously stating, “one poinsettia leaf can kill a child”.  In 1980 poinsettias were prohibited from nursing homes in a county in North Carolina due to this alleged toxicity.  This illustrates the power of the urban legend.

When I looked online, I found an urban legend (sometimes contemporary legend, modern legend, urban myth, or urban tale) is a genre of folklore comprising stories or fallacious claims circulated as true, especially as having happened to a “friend of a friend” or a family member, and often with horrifying, humorous, or cautionary elements.  These legends can be entertaining but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects or entities.  Urban legends may confirm moral standards, reflect prejudices, or be a way to make sense of societal anxieties.  Urban legends in the past were most often circulated orally, but now can also be spread by the media, including newspapers, mobile news apps, e-mail, and most often, social media.  Some urban legends have passed through the years and even decades with only minor changes, such as in where the time of the legend takes place.  Generic urban legends are often altered to suit regional variations, but the lesson or moral remains essentially the same.

I attended the University of Utah around the time Jan Harold Brunvand was professor emeritus of English.  Brunvand is best known for spreading the concept of urban legend, or modern folklore.  Before his work folk tales were thought to only be associated with ancient times or rural cultures.  Brunvand’s breakthrough was to take concepts developed in the academic study of traditional folktales and apply them to stories circulating in the modern world.  Brunvand published tales like The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), The Choking Doberman (1984), The Mexican Pet (1988), Curses! Broiled Again! (1990), and The Baby Train (1993), along with others. While the poison poinsettia may not have achieved the status of a book, it is an established urban legend.

THOUGHTS:  When I was exploring the process of urbanization at the turn of the 20th century one of the urban legends I found was “The Good Girl Gone Bad”.  This appeared as news articles that were always “copied” from another source and carried by small town and rural newspapers as fact.  The legend told of a small town girl who goes to the big city, falls in with the wrong crowd, and becomes either a drug addict or prostitute, all ending with the report of the girl’s death.  At first, I thought this was tragic.  Then I noticed an almost identical story in small newspapers across the West.  When I mentioned this, a friend gave me a copy of the Brunvand’s, The Mexican Pet.  Joseph Campbell was one of the foremost scholars of comparative mythology.  He likened the Star Wars franchise to the Hero’s Journey legends found around the world.  These stories challenge, guide, and even caution us.  We are still being led (misled?) by the legends that are passed on as “having really happened to my friend’s cousin”.  We can blindly accept these stories or attempt to understand the reason behind why they persist.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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