Emergency Guide

Potentially Harmful Cayman Plants

While most of Cayman’s flora is a lush library of beautiful plants, some of the island’s vegetation can be surprisingly harmful. Here are a few examples of local plants that should be avoided and what you should do if you do come into contact.

Maiden Plum – Comocladia dentata

What to look out for:

Commonly found as a small shrub around ankle height but also as a thin, rangy bush of 6.5 feet in height and occasionally as a full-sized tree. Often found in overgrown pastureland, Maiden Plum usually consists of a narrow stem with rough, vertically fissured bark, 1-8 feet tall, with a palm-like cluster of compound leaves at the top.
Easily identified by distinctive glossy, waxy leaves with serrated edges. The leaves are generally dark olive green in color, occasionally have black spots and are arranged in opposite pairs, with a single leaflet on the tip.

Effects of contact:

This fragile plant can be damaged by even slight contact which results in the release of an odorous and highly caustic sap, which has the potential to permanently stain clothing black, and can penetrate human skin. Most people will have an allergic skin reaction to contact.

Although not immediately irritating, the contacted skin will develop into a red welt after 24 hours, becoming increasingly inflamed and sore over the following weeks, and developing into a wet, raw, open sore. Sap can be transferred unknowingly from the hands to the face and eyes, by wiping sweat from the face, and scratching can spread the itch to other areas.

What to do:

Contact with the leaves does not have any immediate effect, so it is easy to walk through a stand of Maiden Plum without knowing it. If you do realize you have just brushed against the plant, rubbing the skin vigorously with a dry flannel or other cloth may remove transferred oils and prevent a reaction.

Sap cannot easily be removed from the skin by washing. Some neutralizing effect has been observed by applying acidic fruit juice (lemon and lime) directly to the skin as soon as possible after contact; by application of 1% Hydrocortisone cream; or by taking an anti-histamine.

Lady Hair – Malpighia cubensis

What to look out for:

Lady Hair is a common shrub, usually found as a compact, attractive bush up to 6.5 feet in height. The underside of the small, elongated leaves are lined with fine hairs which detach from the plant at the slightest touch.

Effects of contact:

The hairs are highly irritating, attaching to and working their way through clothing, and prickling into the skin.

What to do:

On contact, clothing covered with hairs should be removed immediately. Hairs can be removed from clothes and skin using duct tape and tweezers. Once the hairs are physically removed, the associated irritation quickly abates.

Cow itch – Mucuna pruriens

What to look out for:

Cow itch is a climbing shrub with long vines. When the plant is young, it is almost completely covered with fuzzy hairs, which decrease as the plant ages until it is almost free of hairs. The sides of the leaves are often heavily grooved and the tips are pointy.
Cow itch bears hanging purple flowers, and pods (5-10 cm long) which are also covered in loose orange hairs, somewhat resembling furry caterpillars.

Effects of contact:

Cow itch hairs are fragile and can be removed by the slightest touch. They can even be detached in the wind and blown for some distance, attaching to clothes, hanging washing etc. The hairs cause a severe, almost unbearable itch if they come in contact with the skin. Cow itch hairs are the active ingredient in itching powder.

What to do:

Avoid scratching the exposed area as this can lead to the transfer of the hairs and chemicals to other areas via the hands, and then lead to more vigorous and uncontrollable scratching. Avoid all contact with the face and eyes. Remove affected clothes and seek medical assistance. In the absence of medical assistance, hairs can be physically removed with tweezers. Submersion of the affected area in hot (as bearable) water, and the topical application of Benadryl cream (or similar) may provide some relief.

Manchineel – Hippomane mancinella

What to look out for:

Manchineel is common in the Cayman Islands and is most often encountered as a compact bush of 3 – 6.5 feet meters in height, or as a fully-grown tree. Easily identified by its distinctive leaves: round, finely edged, with long thin stems – resembling miniature tennis rackets. Their fruit resemble miniature apples – green when young, turning yellower as they ripen, with a pleasant sweet-smelling fragrance.

This large tree is usually found on the edges of wetlands and behind beach ridges. The trunk is usually quite pale, creamy white, with the bark broken by vertical and horizontal fissures into a crazed pattern. The leaves are variable in size, but in Cayman, typically about 2 inches across, roughly heart shaped, somewhat glossy, and held on long yellow-green leaf stalks, often as long as the leaf itself. If you look very closely at the leaf margin, you will see tiny teeth which distinguish Manchineel from a local Wild Fig that has otherwise similar leaves.

Effects of contact:

The leaves, bark, sap and fruit of the Manchineel are all very dangerous. Contact with any of these will cause severe blistering or burning of the skin. Eating the fruit of the Manchineel can cause death – just tasting it will cause blistering. Burning the leaves and wood is dangerous as inhaling the smoke causes blistering of the skin and getting the smoke in eyes can cause blindness.
If it rains never take shelter under a Manchineel trees as water dripping from the leaves will carry the sap with it, causing blistering of the skin.

What to do:

If you are exposed to Manchineel sap, wash with soap and water as soon as possible to remove any plant latex. Try not to spread the sap to other areas of the body. Seek immediate medical attention.
Sources:
Burton, F. (2017). Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands. Doe.ky. (2017).
Dangerous Plants : Grand Cayman Department of Environment. [online] Available at: http://doe.ky/terrestrial/dangerous-plants/ [Accessed 29 Aug. 2017].
Mailer, S. (2017). Dangerous plants. [email].

Photos by Stuart Mailer