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Many thanks to Irene from Promisek at Three Rivers Farm in Bridgewater. (We’re glad you’re not still itching!)

Fall announces her arrival in many ways… the changing color of the leaves, harvest festivals, pumpkin spice lattes and cool evenings… for me, I know Fall is around the corner when I see bags of bulbs arriving in garden centers, box stores and even local supermarkets.

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A dizzying array of tulips, daffodils, alliums, crocus, iris in a rainbow of colors, the promise of a bright spring! I love to imagine the possibilities and am sure to examine each bulb closely. Are they firm and not rotting at all? I always check for dense bulbs with no mold, fungus or decay. Often times I’ll even hold the bulbs up close to my face and breathe in to see if they smell ‘off’.

Last year I spotted some lovely hyacinth bulbs. Hyacinthus orientalis are not my favorite, but the price was too good to pass up and they are deer resistant.

Happy with my purchase, I headed home. Slowly, I began to itch on my hands, my neck, my face. Fumbling for some decades old Benadryl in my glove compartment (quite possibly from the last millennium!) my mind began to race – what had I eaten? Had I mistakenly ingested something containing aspirin? That is the one thing I am allergic to, it’s one of the more common allergens. Twenty minutes later I was still itching but I was breathing (thankfully) so I was not in anaphylaxis.

What happened?

I consulted with my trusted medical professional, Dr Internet.

The pretty, delicate hyacinth holds a deep dark secret, and I had fallen victim to Irritant Contact Dermatitis or the dreaded HYACINTH ITCH.  6% of the hyacinth bulb is composed of calcium oxalate crystals. When I handled the bulbs,  the hard outer skin (tecta) broke into tiny sharp particles that released calcium oxalate crystal. These sharp crystals resemble needles and are called raphide. The calcium oxalate can become airborne and affect other parts of the body.

This is a HUGE problem in bulb packing facilities and any place where people come into constant close contact with flower bulbs.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphide#/media/File:Raphides_from_variegated_ivy.jpg Image from Wikipedia Commons

Raphide not from a hyacinth but a variegated ivy… but you get the idea. Ouch!

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Calcium oxalate is found in many bulbs (see Medscape: Chemical Irritant Contact Dermatitis) and plants, and is also a major constituent of human kidney stones.

I did as the “doctor” recommended, I washed repeatedly with cold water and took antihistamines. The next day I had recovered completely.






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Beautiful hyacinths, NOT in my house… Photo by Lacey Wallace

But why did this happen? I had handled hyacinth bulbs in the past with no problems, and have worked with daffodils, tulips and many other “dangerous” plants and bulbs since then and never had this problem. I am, however, avoiding hyacinths in my garden going forward. I admire them in other gardens, from afar.