In the Garden:
New England
June, 2006
Regional Report

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Datura is beauty and beast rolled into one. It's lovely and fragrant but poisonous and irritating to skin.

Plants That Leave a Lasting Impression

A few years ago I planted a datura (Datura stramonium) near the front walk for its huge, beautiful, white flowers, and it settled in and grew large and bushy. Then we got a puppy, and knowing that all parts of datura are poisonous, and knowing that the puppy was taste-testing everything in sight, I decided the datura had to go. With my bare hands (and arms and legs) I yanked out the plant in multiple pieces and piled them on the garden cart. The next day I broke out in red, itchy welts wherever the plant had touched my skin.

A friend had an even worse encounter with cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) while pulling weeds on her property. This plant, which looks like a giant Queen Anne's lace, causes skin blisters resembling second-degree burns if the sap on the skin is exposed to sunlight. Her rash lasted for a month, and she was lucky because it can cause permanent scarring. It can cause blindness if it gets in the eyes. Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a related plant that causes a similar reaction, as does another relative -- Angelica archangelica, which is planted in many gardens for its impressive stature and deep burgundy color.

Poison ivy may be the most notorious plant to avoid, but there are many that can cause skin irritation. Plants may seem to be passive creatures, but they have evolved various means of protecting themselves against browsing animals and hungry insects. Thorns and prickles, sharp leaf blades, stinging hairs, and toxic sap are just some of their defense mechanisms that can be deterrents for gardeners as well. Stinging nettle is especially insidious. Its stems and leaves are covered with minute hollow needles that pierce the skin like a syringe when touched, then release poisonous liquid. Sounds more like a jungle snake than a common weed!

Protect Yourself
Everyone reacts differently to skin irritants (one friend ended up in the hospital from a rose thorn puncture), but a little protection can go a long way. I favor using long-cuffed gloves for working around roses, leather gloves for weeding and general gardening chores, and disposable latex gloves for working around poison ivy. Long sleeves and long pants are necessary at times.

If you brush up against one of these irritating plants, here's what the FDA and dermatologists recommend for poison ivy:

1. Stay outside and wash exposed skin with rubbing alcohol or Tecnu (a product made for this purpose), both of which dissolve the sap. If you don't have either of these but happen to have some beer or wine or other alcohol-containing beverage, use this instead.
2. Then rinse skin with cool water. Don't use soap yet because it can spread the sap on your body.
3. Go inside and take a shower, washing with soap. Deposit clothes in a plastic bag.
4. Dump clothes in washing machine and wash in hot water.
5. Wipe tools and gloves that are keepers with alcohol and water.

Once the skin has erupted with a rash, a topical lotion such as Calamine can reduce the itching. A paste of baking soda and water can also help, especially for stinging nettle irritation because the baking soda neutralizes the formic acid contained in the nettles.

Even people who have never reacted to poison ivy should take precautions with this plant because it's spreading further, growing larger, and becoming more potent. Apparently it's getting pumped up on carbon dioxide -- a new twist to the greenhouse effect. Foresters have noticed for decades that woody vines have become more abundant, and they have suspected that rising levels of carbon dioxide might be the cause. Sure enough, Duke University researchers have found that poison ivy exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide grew 150 times faster, and the toxic sap (urushiol) was 30 percent more irritating.

Disposable jumpsuit, anyone?


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