ChiloquinNews article 6/27/2011
Not a popular phrase in logging country, but what gardener can resist running her hands over the furrowed bark of an ancient cedar, or pressing a nose against the bark of a magnificent Ponderosa Pine, to smell the vanilla fragrance. The first time I saw a Bristlecone Pine, growing in the most inhospitable place – at 11,000 ft in Nevada’s White Mountains – I had to touch it. Just imagine, that tree, still living in the electronics age, was a seedling 5000 years ago when the Egyptian pyramids were just beginning to be built, and all the ancient civilizations were still to come.
On a garden scale, there are not many plants that cry out to be touched. One exception is Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), a low growing plant with soft silvery-gray leaves. It not only does well in this area, but is also somewhat drought and deer resistant, and the flowers are much loved by bees.
Many plants discourage touching, because that usually means that something is about to eat them. They have lots of ways to discourage us. It can be purely mechanical, like thorns. What gardener hasn’t had a brush with a rose bush when pruning? Handle with care! And that includes Hawthorn, plum, Sea Berry, raspberries, blackberries and a number of other spiky customers.
It can be chemical, and just breaking a leaf in passing can expose you to the chemical. Euphorbia is a fascinating plant genus consisting of more than 2000 species including trees, shrubs and cactus-like plants with worldwide distribution. The trees and shrubs are not hardy here, but the smaller Euphorbia’s do well and I’m sure many people grow them without realizing the danger. Be aware that they contain a milky sap that varies between species in its potency, but all have irritant and carcinogenic diterpine esters. Some of them have an effect a hundred times the effect of capsaicin, the irritant found in chili peppers. Even the smallest touch in the mouth or in the eyes can cause numbness or long-lasting, severe pain and loss of vision, which usually returns after several days of worry. They are not good to plant if you have dogs that might roll about on them, or children who might pick one because it’s ‘cute’.
Donkey Tail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites)
We’ve been hearing about blue-green algae in the Klamath River. Their attack is also chemical. “Swimmers’ Itch” is a severe inflammation of the skin that can occur after swimming in water containing blooms of some species of cyanobacteria. The symptoms are itching and burning followed by blisters and deep peeling of skin.
It can be mechanical-chemical. Nettle springs to mind. The leaves have fragile hollow needles with nettle cells at their bases, filled with liquid poison. When touched, the needles break off, leaving tips which can enter the skin like syringes and release the poison. There is lots of it along the edge of the wetlands, and the sting will remain with you for some time if you brush against it. The young shoots of nettle are edible, and I did once go to the trouble of picking some of them, just to taste. Once cooked, the sting is inactivated but the flavor is pretty bland and, I decided, not worth the effort.
Then there are those that have an allergizing effect. The first encounter with one of them usually does not have any noticeable effects, but subsequent contact can cause gradually more severe skin irritation. Poison Oak and Poison Ivy are the classics in this class.
We are fortunate here in Chiloquin that because of our almost 8 month-long winters, we don’t have very many plants that are poisonous to touch. There are many more of them growing in warmer places.