Plants of evil intent

August 29, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

In her delightful book, "The Fragrant Path," Louise Beebe Wilder includes a wonderful chapter on "Plants of Evil Odor." She notes that what stinks for one person may not be unpleasant for another.

If I were writing a new book of herbs I would be tempted to include a chapter on "Plants of Evil Intent" - focusing on those plants that cause the gardener discomfort. Just as our personal response to odors varies, so do various plants cause us problems.

We'll skip over the many dreadful things that can happen when you ingest certain garden plants and focus on touch and smell.

There are some lucky folks who can handle poison ivy ("Leaves of three, let it be") without a blister or a bump; others respond with skin eruptions and days of suffering. This misery is allergic contact dermatitis. Since poison ivy can be introduced to a garden by bird droppings, in may appear in even the best-regulated garden. To eradicate small patches, I stuff my gloved hand into one of the plastic bags in which the newspaper is delivered. Then I pull up the plant, fold the bag over the intruder and place it in the trash.


If you discover you have encountered poison ivy sans plastic covering, wash the affected area immediately with soapy water.

Some common garden herbs cause may cause photosensitization resulting in phytophotodermatitis. A rash or burn results when the sun shines on the spot where the plant oils have touched the skin. Several years ago my granddaughter was watching some women create bouquets for her aunt's wedding. One of the women apparently reached out and touched Cait's face. A short time later, when exposed to the hot July sun, fingerprints were clearly visible on her chin. These burns persisted for several days. The fragrant gas plant, included in the arrangements, was the guilty party. Bishop's weed and rue may also give rise to photosensitization. In extreme cases, contact with these plants may also cause internal damage.

The leaves of motherwort, wild ginger, tree of heaven, hops, American pennyroyal, the autumn foliage of Virginia creeper, Virgin's bower, feverfew and tansy are but a few of the plants that may cause rash or blistering. This contact dermatitis is usually not as long lasting as the poison ivy variety.

Constant handling of tulip bulbs can result in an inflammation of the fingertips. Work with alstromeria, the new darling of the floral industry, may also result in "tulip fingers."

The latex present in the stems and fruits of many plants can also be troublesome. I use plastic gloves when I slice the fruit of osage orange to dry for Christmas ornaments to protect myself from milky sap that it exudes that may cause itching and rash. Some report the same reaction from stems of dandelions and plants in the milkweed family.

Recently I discovered how irritating plants with hairy stems can be. My forearms were covered with what looked like heat rash after I cut back the sprawling dye plant, madder. Several people have reported a similar rash that persisted after prolonged contact with achillea. How many times have you found your own arms itchy and red when picking tomatoes or cutting back black-eyed Susan? Any plant with hair on the stems should be approached with caution.

Some plants attack us through the nose. Sneezing and wheezing occur in people sensitive to ragweed or sunflower pollen. Equally violent reactions occur in many people exposed to Sweet Annie or many of the other artemisias.

To be safe in the garden, wear long-sleeves and gloves. If you're especially susceptible to hay-fever, a surgical mask might be in order. And never, never touch your face, especially around your eyes, after you have been handling plants.

If you're already itchy, apply cool compresses. Do not scratch. Avoid hot water, soaps, detergents, overheated rooms and alcohol-based lotions. If the skin is dry, plain old Vaseline may help.

New gardeners, remember, it's a wild world out there. If you have an unpleasant reaction after working in the garden, make a note of the plants you had been working with, then try to identify the guilty party.

The old adage "prevention is worth a pound of cure" is still true. Be careful out there. You may be harboring "plants of evil intent."

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