Agave sap

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.)

 

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10 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.

  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.

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