Flowers for Friday, and the Trouble with Agave


These blackfoot daisies (Melampodium leucanthum), growing next to my driveway, are the best I’ve seen them in my yard. Typically very drought tolerant, they also have a very long blooming season, March to November. The rains in August set them off, and they’ve been glorious since.

I did some work on the bed they’re in to remove some very overgrown agave and grasses that had died. I replaced those with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and evening primrose I transplanted from other parts of the yard.


I learned something the hard way about agave (mine was Agave americana americana). Besides the nasty spikes and recurved thorns the plant uses to defend itself, it has a third defense mechanism that’s not apparent to the eye. In fact, it’s microscopic. The juice of the plant contains calcium oxalate raphides – microscopic needles – that cause acute contact dermatitis. In my case, the pulpy “leaves” of agave I was chopping slapped up against the insides of my knees. Within a minute or so my skin was on fire and itching simultaneously. I knew I’d come in contact with something, but not specifically what. I dropped everything and ran to the shower. It was too late, however. Benedryl cream and topical fluocininide (strong steroidal cream) didn’t do a whole lot, but the burning eventually subsided. The following day I had a rash that looked and felt a little like poison ivy. A week later it has not faded a bit. In fact, I read one source that said the rash can last a year.

I love learning new things about plants, but not in such a tactile, first-hand way. My friend Grog and I once joked we should start a TV show called The Tactile Botanist, with a Brit-accented buffoon of a host bumbling his way through a range of plant identifications based on their thorns, spines, brambles, tripping vines and rash-producing juices, and the severity of his injuries. Needless to say, the agave is now my main vote for the pilot episode.

I continued my work the next day in jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Lesson learned.

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