It’s not all sweetness and light in the garden.
FOR MY LAST COLUMN OF THE YEAR, dear readers, I bring you a cautionary tale from the garden. No, don’t stop reading if you’re not a gardener because this story applies to anyone who steps outside.
I mostly know the rogue plants in my garden, the ones that can maim if given a chance. I’m careful around the euphorbias that, with the slightest provocation, will ooze a milky alkaloid that burns like acid on the skin. I respect the stately monkshood, knowing that every inch of it is deadly when ingested. Also the beguiling foxglove—from which the heart medicine, digitalis, gets both its potency and name—and the irises, calla lily, lily of the valley, yew hedge, fig tree, and so on. The average garden is full of beauties that quietly have a darker side.
During fall cleanup I become a bushwhacker, but never without the protection of gloves, long pants, long sleeves and thick socks. I comb out and cut away the spent seasonal growth, trim the shrubbery and re-edge the beds. (This year several were also mulched with chips from trees felled just up the road.) On some days the chaff creeps into my clothing and a disturbed insect or two exact their revenge. It’s all part of gardening and I take it in stride.
But a few weeks ago after one such marathon, I awoke with an angry rash on my arms and torso. Even as I waited my turn at the clinic, the itchy hot redness crept up into my neck, encircled my jawline and drifted up to the tops of my ears. “Antihistamines and calamine,” the doctor directed, after deducing that I was probably reacting to a combination of spider bites and skin irritants.
Such are the hazards of communing with nature, and they certainly don’t end at the property line. A Saanich Parks employee once knocked on my door to tell me her team was removing a stand of Giant Hogweed in the neighbourhood. Would I keep a sharp eye out for new seedlings? Giant Hogweed can grow up to five metres tall, with sap and leaves toxic enough to cause temporary or permanent blindness as well as scarring burns on the skin. It plunders through our native flora, which is why it’s on Saanich’s invasive plant list.
Also on the list is poison hemlock, an equally robust intruder that occasionally drifts into my garden. All parts of this plant, which famously killed Socrates in 399 BC, are quite deadly when ingested.
Daphne laureola is another loathsome menace I’ve seen around town, including in a garden where children play. Don’t let this rhododendron look-alike fool you: Its berries are toxic and its sap can blister exposed skin.
Check your municipal parks website for a complete list of invasives and call them if you spot any of these baneful thugs. Never handle them yourself without protective gear and never compost or burn them. Many have seeds that can survive composting; several release poisonous fumes when burned. Bag all parts carefully and place in the garbage.
A bit further afield, stay alert for marauders such as stinging nettle, indigenous devil’s club, and poison oak. According to Healthlink BC, poison oak is rare in Canada except on eastern Vancouver Island and nearby islands. In the end I think that was my culprit, a nasty skin irritant that came in with my free wood chips. Poison oak releases urushiol, an oily sap that not only burns the skin but sticks to clothing and garden tools, thus making them toxic as well. By the time I figured out what was going on I’d infected my arms, torso, neck and face, and contaminated my bed, other clothing, and probably also my yard.
It’s a sobering lesson and I’ve been duly admonished. Poisoning in the garden is not uncommon and I’m now reassessing everything I grow. There are ways to reduce the likelihood of injury. Know what you have—a good exercise anyway considering we live in a culture where children can identify 1000 corporate logos but can’t identify 10 plants found in their own backyards. Teach children to not eat or touch plants without adult permission. Get rid of anything toxic to pets. Don’t import anything unsterilized unless you trust the source. Had I followed that last rule, I wouldn’t be sitting here festooned in blisters and calamine pink.
Writer Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, a Master Gardener, notes that in all her many years gardening this is the first one in which she ran in to this sort of trouble.