Last week, several news articles hit the headlines concerning allergic reactions to plants.

Each case required a visit to the casualty unit or a stay in hospital.

Being a keen gardener myself, I was stunned to read these accounts of notionally harmless plants.

(Photo: F Geller-Grimm/Wikimedia Commons)The first story involves teenage boys who were playing in a park in Bolton, Greater Manchester. They brushed up against hogweed and, naturally, thought little of it. A rash later developed, which then turned into blisters and boils. The Mirror has photographs. Two of the boys required hospital treatment. One needed to stay overnight. Both are still receiving drugs to help their recovery. Initially, physicians at Royal Bolton Hospital were baffled by the injuries. However (emphases mine):

It can take as long as seven years for the skin to repair itself after a hogweed burn and the boys will now have to make sure they are protected from sunlight.

If the hogweed sap is rubbed into the eyes, it can cause temporary or even permanent blindness.

Apparently, according to the Woodland Trust — from which the photo also comesit is the giant hogweed which can be hazardous. Woodland Trust tells us:

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a plant in the Apiaceae family which was introduced to the UK as an ornamental garden plant. It has white flowers and deeply incised compound leaves (where the leaf is divided into several smaller leaflets) whose edges are irregular and very sharply or jaggedly cut. It looks similar to its harmless relative common hogweed however it can grow up to 5.5 metres (18 feet) in height, making it easy to spot when fully grown!

Giant hogweed is closely related to carrots, common hogweed, cow parsley, and (a bit confusingly!) is sometimes known as cow parsnip, or wild rhubarb.

The second story involves Mrs Rita Savage, 79, of Frome, Somerset. Several years ago, her sister gave her a Madagascar palm — a type of cactus — which Mrs Savage replanted recently after it outgrew its pot. Whilst repotting it, she accidentally pierced herself with one of the thorns. Emergency services were initially unhelpful because they did not understand the significance of her swelling and pain. She spent several days in hospital taking antibiotics and antihistamines. Doctors told her that she would recover fully — in another six weeks!

The third incident occurred in Loup near the Côte d’Azur. Six-year old Louise, from nearby Vence, was on a picnic with her parents. She and a young friend were having fun pulling leaves off a fig tree. Twenty-four hours later, both girls had to be rushed to hospital with burns and huge blisters. One of Louise’s hands has second degree burns. (Nice-Matin has photos.)  Louise’s mother told Nice-Matin:

[Doctors] told me it’s an ongoing phenomenon. However, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. No one talks about it.

In a conversation about gardening here last week, my reader Underground Pewster helpfully explained:

The milky sap that one finds when picking figs is both a local irritant and allergen. In addition, some people can develop burns when the sap affected skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. I have experienced only mild skin irritation on the fingers which is worse with the less ripe fig. When the stem or skin is green, then more sap will be flowing. Peeling figs can cause the same problem when the skin is thick and not fully ripe.

Who knew such hazards existed? The Tandurust site has more detail on fig tree sap. Excerpts follow:

Fig allergy rash may come from contact with the latex of unripe fig fruits which is usually made into a powder to be used for making meat tender, clarifying beverages, and rendering fat.

Rash will appear as a result of irritation which has been a big problem for fig harvesters.

… the leaf and root sap of a fig tree cause more allergic reaction and rashes than the unripe fruit and other parts of the tree

Psoralen and bergapten which are abundant in leaf and root saps of fig trees are considered to be the primary cause of the allergic reactions and the appearance of rashes.

Besides rashes, phytophotodermatitis can also develop when a patient comes into contact with psoralen that is present in fig trees. This condition is characterized by hyperpigmentation, sunburns, and blisters. There also had been cases of anaphylaxis.

I would not wish to cause my readers alarm, but it is worthwhile reading up on certain plants before working or playing with them.

I’ll certainly pay closer attention in future!