Agave sap (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

You're already wary of poison oak, cactus glochids and the milky sap of euphorbias. Now add agave sap to the list. In susceptible individuals, it causes the skin condition "agave dermatitis."

Case in point: I assumed my ex (my then-husband) was exaggerating when he said his skin itched like crazy. I mean, how bad can agave sap be? Don't they make syrup and tequila out of it? You never hear about agaves being toxic! While attempting to remove an overly large century plant (Agave americana), he didn't don protective clothing. It was a hot day, and he took off his shirt. That was 40+ years ago. (Yeah, I owe him an apology.)

Chopped up agave

Chopped up agave

As recently as the fall of '18, I was unaware of the dangers of agave sap. Workers came to remove Big Blue, an Agave americana in my garden that had died after flowering. (See the video.)  They wore long-sleeves, trousers, sunglasses and hats. And they used a chain saw, which I've since learned is unwise, because it makes bits of the plant fly. Fortunately Big Blue was no longer juicy. Living agaves, though fibrous, contain much more sap.

With century plants getting larger than homeowners anticipated, throughout Southern CA, and inevitably dying after flowering, such removals are becoming commonplace.

Last year, without hiring help, I dealt with another big agave that bloomed. You know how I advise not bothering to cut off agave bloom stalks? I routinely say, "You might as well enjoy the show, the plant will die regardless." Well, find out why you should cut it off, on this site's Agave page.

Why is "agave dermatitis" unknown?

I predict it won't be for long. My ex merely itched. Greg M., who sent me an email earlier this week, said his skin felt like it was on fire. In Greg's case, the skin turned red and blistered. According to a dermatology site for MDs, agave sap can cause "CICD: Chemical Irritant Contact Dermatitis," which happens when oxalic acid crystals become embedded in the skin. The resulting "oxalism...may result in vascular damage." Another online source states that an estimated 30% of Mexico's tequila plantation workers experience agave dermatitis.

What to do?

I am not a medical practitioner. When in doubt, or if symptoms don't improve, contact your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic. Both my ex and Greg M. washed the sap off immediately, and both were fine. And just as you would do whenever considering contact with a potentially harmful substance, first do a patch test. The Mayo Clinic explains how.

Let me (and others) know

In the comments below, I'd be grateful if you'd share any experiences you've had with agave removal and sap exposure. Thanks!

Girl eating agave

Girl eating agave

P.S. Don't eat raw agave!

According to the Chongquing Times, "Zhang," 26, thought the agave leaf she was taking a bite out of was Aloe vera. She expected it to be bitter, but not that bitter. Her mouth and throat burned. Zhang is one of many Chinese vloggers who earn money from live-streaming their day-to-day activities. She cut short her video and rushed to a hospital, where they pumped her stomach. (You can't make these things up.)

 

Enjoyed this article? Please share it!
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

18 Comments

  1. Tim Wheeler on August 8, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    When my Big Blue (A. americana) spiked I knew removing it would be a major project, and damage to adjacent plants was possible no matter how careful my great succulent gardeners were. I had two reasons for cutting the inflorescence stalk before it attained its tree-top height: 1) removing the dead agave’s 20+ foot stalk would be like felling a tree embedded in a thicket of 6-foot barbed swords, and 2) I had applied a systemic treatment of imidacloprid only 3 months before the stalk appeared, and I didn’t want to risk poisoning pollinators with the myriad flowers on their way.

    So my two succulent gardeners, who I had been lucky to meet at a drought-tolerant landscaping fair a few years ago, used long-handled pruning saws to cut down the stalk at about 4 feet tall. They made quick work of it. A few months later they removed the main plant in the same manner, methodically hand-sawing off each leaf from a safe distance using the long-handled saws, then sectioning the thick remaining trunk. They maintained control of the process throughout, and they suffered no dermatitis. The pieces filled two dumpsters, which my neighbor graciously supplied.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 2:41 pm

      Hi Tim — I’m a big believer in cutting off the stalk as it begins to form, rather than waiting for it to turn into a tree. I used to tell people not to bother, because they asked if that would stop the plant from dying. “You might as well enjoy the show.” But you really don’t need a 20-foot stalk! The one I had removed (in the video) landed on a prized palo verde tree and almost killed it. I’d paid $100+ for the tree and was NOT happy.

      The next time a big agave started to bloom, I said, “Oh, no you don’t!” and sawed through the stalk with a pruning knife in a matter of minutes. I fully expected the dying agave to produce a bunch of smaller bloom stalks, but it didn’t. (It was Agave franzosinii, if that matters.) Then my gardener sawed off the leaves to create a pineappled core. That sat as an eyesore/conversation piece for months until I had him roll it under some shrubbery. He finally sawed it into pieces. Being a multistep process, we didn’t need dumpsters.

  2. Diane Bonner on August 8, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    I had CICD just about a month ago. I was trimming the leaves off my Agave americana that were sticking out. I leaned over a cut stem and placed my inner arm just below the elbow against a cut edge accidentally. I had this happen a few years ago also, so I knew to go wash it off immediately! Unfortunately I still got the itchy red blotches which eventully blistered a little. I used Sarin lotion to help with the itches, but I still have slightly darker skin where the blisters were. Scars?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 2:32 pm

      Gosh I hope there’s no scarring. Sounds a lot like a burn and its aftermath. Thanks for sharing this info, Diane!

  3. Felicia on August 8, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    Not only does it burn my skin but it has made me sick to my stomach and the effects lasted for two days🤢

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 8, 2020 at 7:15 pm

      I’m sorry that happens to you, Felicia, but it’s good to know about it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Heather L. on March 4, 2021 at 6:10 am

      I had to come here to see why I had such a reaction on my skin. I was also strangely nauseous for a few hours after I encountered the plant on my skin. I would have never put the two together.

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on March 4, 2021 at 8:30 am

        Hm. First time I’ve heard of nausea. But then I’m no medical expert.

  4. Robert Ando on August 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Are there other succulents that can cause similar skin irritations? Which ones?

  5. Mary Jane Olenski on August 18, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Several years ago, i removed and pruned Agave plants. Not realizing the toxicity, wore a short sleeved shirt.
    I suffered and itched for 6 weeks after. Did research above the plants juice afterward. It was a very very uncomfortable 6 weeks to say the least. Now i prune with an 8 foot saw on an extension pole and wear lots of clothes and protection.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 18, 2020 at 10:17 am

      Wow, Mary Jane, I admire your perseverance in keeping agaves at all! Thanks for letting us know how the sap affected you.

  6. Robert on November 2, 2020 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the information. I wish I would have done my homework before cutting this plant…Ouch! My arms are paying the price! Cortisone seems to be helping.

  7. SF Belliveau on November 28, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I made the mistake of rolling up my sleeves when my husband and I were trimming the agave. I was so focused and intent on what we were accomplishing that I didn’t even stop scratching when my skin began to burn and itch! I noticed the contact-dermatitis after I showered, and the next day I went to the doctor and got a tetnus shot and cortizone creme. Its slowly going away, but the itch is awful and never again will i do yardwork with my skin exposed.

    • Cristian Betancourt on January 7, 2021 at 3:33 am

      Hey I thought it would be fun to eat a century plant but it’s been a few days and my tongue is very sensitive and hurts. Should I be worried it will I be able to out last this.

      • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 7, 2021 at 9:22 am

        Please contact a medical professional.

        • Azera on January 22, 2021 at 11:03 am

          I’m very relieved to find this site. I’m a Midwesterner and new to AZ. I didn’t realize how toxic these plants were. My Beau had Agave plants under a window replanted in the yard. If I knew this before we would have tossed them instead of wasting the money.

          4 days after I backed up into a small plant I’m sitting here in extreme pain and even crawling at times.. I was in flip flops watering and I grazed the back and underside of my Lt foot. I didn’t think much about it as it felt like a little scrape and I barely saw a white cut mark on my callous. The FOLLOWING evening I got up to go to bed and could barely put any pressure on my foot, it felt like a knife on fire was embedded in my heal. I pried opened the teeny tiny slice and saw black little dots – I pulled them out. The next morning I had a bright red line shooting from the cut to a vein and a big red rash containing a few bumps under the skin. Today the redness is finally going down (I didn’t
          get blisters) but the pain is still there. Has anyone experienced this and how long before I can walk again?

          Lmao, get this…Due to tippy toeing for days my LT calf is firing off cramps anytime I put pressure on the ball of my foot . So now it’s even harder to get around! These are little Devils and I want them out but we have to have them in the ground long enough for it finacially to make sense. Happy 2021!

          • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 22, 2021 at 11:34 am

            Oh no! You moved from the Midwest without a Southwesterner’s reflexive caution regarding agaves, cacti and the like. Those of us native to the region instinctively recognize keep-away plants. The pain sounds horrific. I strongly urge you to get medical attention (I realize it’s easy to say, harder to do). “How long before I can walk again?” HONEY, PLEASE DON’T DELAY!



Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.