Things I’ve Learned in the Last Month


Ah, the crazy stories of wicked plants you people have told me in the last month as I've been traveling from town to town.  Here's just some of the useful information I feel compelled to share:

Euphorbias can blind you. This should be an obvious one. Anybody who grows euphorbias in the garden knows that they produce an irritating milky-white sap and should be handled with care. What I did not know about, however, was the dreaded Euphorbia Splatter. Not one person, but two told me that they had been out pruning their euphorbias when some of that nasty sap flew into their eye (or, in one case, seemed to simply vaporize in the heat and send its stinging vapor death rays straight up), causing horrible pain and long-term eye damage.

Seriously. Long-term damage. One woman told me that her eyesight has still not recovered, a year later.

Both of them told me that they waited too long to even go inside and wash their eyes; that doing the stand-under-the-shower-for-a-long-time routine helped a little but not much; and that they now wished they had dropped everything and run off to a doctor or clinic where they could have gotten a professional eye-washing.

So. Remember that. Maybe garden with sunglasses, I don’t know.

Rose thorns can give you a disgusting disease. Three people told me their tales of woe regarding ‘rose thorn disease,’ otherwise known as sporotrichosis. It’s caused by a fungus found on rose bushes, and a deep puncture wound with a rose thorn can introduce it into your bloodstream, where you will enjoy such symptoms as disgusting lesions, infections of the joints and nervous system, and other such horrors. Treatment is difficult. One guy I met spent a week in the hospital and still wasn’t totally recovered.

And once again: their regrets? Failure to seek immediate medical attention. They did what I do in the garden: they toughed it out. They yanked the thorn out, wiped the blood off with their muddy sleeve, and kept gardening. If only they had given themselves a little simple first aid, these people told me. Just gone inside for a minute, really cleaned up that little cut, maybe used a little ointment, put a good bandage on it—maybe that would have made a difference.

Or maybe it wouldn’t have. Don’t take my word for it. I didn’t even know about this disease until about two weeks ago. But I did learn that it’s also found in sphagnum moss and hay, and it can be inhaled as well, although that’s rare.

Protective gear is advised. The CDC even says to avoid skin contact with sphagnum moss entirely.

I know—now they tell us! Well, that’s why I’m passing all this on.

Children really do eat deadly berries. People always act like I’m overreacting when I suggest yanking out plants that might be tempting to pets or children too small to listen to reason. So I submit this to you: A nurseryman in the Northwest told me that he came home one day and his wife calmly told him that their toddler had eaten every berry off their daphne bush. Did he think that was all right?

All right? Hell, no, it was not all right! Daphne is very poisonous. Only a few berries could kill a child. The little girl was made to throw up, a great deal of unpleasantness ensued, hospitalization was involved, and she lived. A happy ending, but still. What a nightmare.

Brugmansias can make you fall in love with your wife all over again.Speaking of happy endings, here’s a story that’s terrifying to no one but me, who had to hear it live on public radio and try to muster a response. A guy called in and told the listening audience that, while on a road trip, he and his wife bought a brugmansia (angel’s trumpet) and had it in the back seat of their car for a few days as they went from state to state. One day in bloomed, filling the car with its lemony-sweet fragrance.

“And that night,” the man said, with obvious astonishment in his voice, “My wife and I made love! Which is not that unusual, but you know, it had been a long day, we’re just in some motel, but we thought, OK, that was nice.”

(Try to imagine me in the radio studio, trying not to make eye contact with the host.)

Then he says, “And in the morning we woke up and—again! A second time! OK, that’s a little unusual, but—you know—great!”

So they continue their drive. The brugmansia continues to perfume the car. I continue to cringe and avoid eye contact with the host. Where is this going?

You guessed it. “And that night,” he said, “We get to our next motel, check in, and you know what? Again! The next morning? Again!”

He could hardly believe his good fortune. Eventually we reached the end of the story, or maybe he and his wife reached the end of the trip. Regardless, his question, after all that, was, “Is brugmansia an aphrodisiac?”

Don’t ask me. I now officially know more about brugmansia than I ever wanted to know. I ducked the question and was relieved to see that we were finally out of time.

When I left the radio station, the host said, “I’d love to have you on again sometime.”

“Again!” I said, and we both cracked up.

“Again!” he shouted, as I got on the elevator.

And then I went in search of a bar that would be willing to write up my receipt as bridge tolls or parking fees so I could run it through the expense account. Just another day on the book tour.


  1. I don’t know about brugmansia–not hardy here–but Oriental lilies, for sure!

    We need to get Jeff Gillman on this question.

  2. There’s one Euphorbia species, E. cooperi, that is supposed to be able to irritate the eyes and respiratory system from the vapors coming off a freshly cut stem. Have yet to find a credible, verified source for this, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    Pencil cactus, E. tirucalli, is the most dangerous one commonly grown: I’ve had a number of people tell me by one means or another that getting pencil cactus sap in your eye is the worst pain ever, and at least one person has told me that they were completely blind for a few days, after having sap drip into their eyes. I’ve heard that a lot of landscapers won’t even consider removing too-large E. tirucalli, not for any amount of money. So don’t plant them in the ground unless you’re willing to commit yourself, and anybody who might have your house in the future, to having a 40-foot tree in your yard that wants to blind you.

    Not all Euphorbia species are as bad as those two, though.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the Euphorbia issue. I wore glasses while prunig mine but got some splatter on my eyebrow. It stung when I had a shower. I washed out the eye with water. It still stung 30 minutes later. I drove to the emergency room, Euphorbia in a plastic bag. They got me in right away and rinsed with a few gallons of saline.

    “Ah, that’s what they look like,” said the nice doctor. “I have people come in all the time”.

    My eyes are fine, I never had a problem. I have removed the tall Euphorbia, though I’m keeping a short one.

  4. More wicked plants! Great post, and seriously, it might save someone’s life, or at least their eyesight.

    I will take my rare rose-gorings more seriously now.

    I hospitalized long ago for a mystery illness- dangerously high fever, massive pain in joints, rash, weird magnesium & potassium levels… Hmmm… Maybe that was it. They never diagnosed it. I eventually got better after six days in the hospital.

    And as for the brugmansia- going out to get me some right now. I was planning to anyway, you know…

    Be careful out there!

  5. Brugmansia is also poisonous if any part of it is ingested (a hallucinogen), to the point that I hear some municipalities in Florida have forbidden planting it since the local teens go after it. It can even be fatal. I haven’t heard of its perfume inducing hallucinations, however. (:
    And yeah, sporotrichosis is out there, but in a 21 year career as a pathologist I think I saw only one case. So it’s not terribly common.
    In short, we can still grow our pretty flowers and dig in the dirt without getting paranoid!

  6. As with most things different people react to things differently. Overly sensitive people are killed by bee stings and some people may go blind from a little Euphorbia juice in the eyes. Poor things.

    I’ve cut down or trimmed plenty of E. tirucalli shrub/trees with not the slightest bit of a reaction. Poison Ivy is something I weed by hand now, gloveless, but carefully on a regular basis. No reaction. I’ve been stabbed by countless roses, had Pygmy Date Palm thorns go in one side of my finger and stick out the other. I couldn’t get it out myself so I did have a doctor yank it out for me. No real pain.

    I come from a line of peasants who survived every plague and famine you could throw at them. Plus I rolled around in the dirt a lot as a kid. I am completely insensitive. That can be a good thing.

    You better knock knock knock on wood.

  7. Some of the sappy euphorbias are very pretty and the deer don’t eat them. I wear gloves when I have the time to cut off faded blooms.

  8. I have a Medusa Head (Euphorbia flanaganii) that I always handle with caution when ever I transplant it or groom it.

  9. I am one of those people who have rose-bites – sporotrichosis. I had never heard of it until a couple of months ago BUT I have had the sores for more than a year. I got snagged several times while trimming the climbing roses and didn’t think anything about it. The sores got worse and deeper, but I figured it was because of the heat and the dirt I was encountering (we had a major yard clean-up after two trees blew over in a storm). I treated the lesions with all kinds of over the counter stuff. Eventually I went to a doctor, tried antibiotics by mouth and as an ointment. Neither worked. Then I read an article that referred to rose bits – hmmm, what’s that? I googled it, of course, and there it was – my lesions! So I printed out the info and took it to my doctor. I am taking a strong antifungal medicine every day and will have to continue until at least two weeks after the lesions completly heal. They are improving but still nowhere near healed. I have never had anything like this – I’m not even allergic to poison ivy. Now I wear leather gauntlets and gloves when I am around roses. And no, I am NOT getting rid of the roses.

Comments are closed.