Toxic plants and irritant sap

Posted: Monday 4 August 2014
by Adam Pasco

One of the things I enjoy most about gardening is making a connection with plants, seeds and the soil.

One of the things I enjoy most about gardening is making a connection with plants, seeds and the soil. Touch is important to me when gardening. Whenever possible I like to handle things, whether pricking out seedlings or planting bulbs and pruning.

Like many other thick-skinned gardeners, after a day outdoors I have the scratches and rough skin to show. But there are times when wearing gloves and protective clothing or equipment is essential. It’s always safety first when handling spikey and thorny subjects, or tools with sharp blades, for instance. Just touching some plants can cause irritation, skin rashes and other allergic responses too.

Anyone who has cut back euphorbia or pruned a fig will have seen the white milky sap that exudes from pruning cuts. If you get this on your skin then it can react to cause an itchy, irritated rash.

You might notice the same reaction when handling or planting hyacinth bulbs. If I touch them, my skin itches madly. Where retailers sell loose hyacinth bulbs you should notice a warning to this effect (and many also provide disposable gloves to wear when picking out your purchase). Sunlight can play a part too: I’ve have heard of people developing a rash when harvesting parsnips and getting sap on their skin.

Now I’m no health expert or dermatologist, so can only offer sensible precautions to consider. As always, take care when gardening, and if you have any adverse reaction or concerns then immediately contact your doctor. Always take care when handling plants. It’s sensible to wear gloves when pruning or planting if you’re unsure whether you might react to a particular plant, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Gloves and protective clothing are the order of the day for many. I wear a pair of goggles when doing anything that creates dust or could throw material into my eyes.

Cutting lawn edges or clearing weedy areas with a nylon line trimmer can also scatter material in all directions, so wear protective clothing that fully covers your arms and legs too.

A ‘Code of Practice for Potentially Harmful Plants’ has been produced for retailers by the Horticultural Trades Association. This groups harmful plants into three categories:

Category A: This is for the most harmful plants that are poisonous if eaten, and those where contact commonly causes severe blistering dermatitis. Plants in this category include Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.

Category B: This includes plants that are toxic if eaten, or are a skin or eye irritant, and includes Aconitum, arum, Digitalis, laburnum, euphorbia, Ricinus, Dieffenbachia and Lantana, among others. It also includes hogweed that is toxic to skin when exposed to sunlight.

Category C: In this group you’ll find plants that are harmful if eaten or may cause skin or eye irritation. Included are Alstroemeria, Caladium, chilli peppers, Ficus, hyacinth, daffodils, tulips, some Solanum, and many others.

It’s certainly worth taking a look at this list so you can get to know plants that could cause you or your family concern, particularly if children or pets use your garden. You can also find some helpful advice about potentially harmful garden plants on the RHS website.

Our gardens are full of potential hazards posed by plants, tools, insects, strong sunlight, glazing, plant supports, electricity, trip hazards from hoses, pots and more, so taking care should always be a top priority.

And one final thought. I always make sure my tetanus inoculation is up-to-date, as that this bacteria can be found in soil and transferred by cuts, grazes and wounds.

Whatever you’re up to in your garden this summer, do take care.

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