Everybody in garden design is talking agaves. Retro modern folks are digging golden barrel cactus. We’re even seeing fire stick euphorbia in pots of mixed perennials. While these new ventures into old succulents are revitalizing the aesthetic of our gardens, there are some key concerns for safety among these often prickly plants.
Succulents have the market cornered on thorns and spines. Agaves produce large rosettes of leaves, each blade tipped with a wickedly sharp thorn. Smaller agaves are leg scratchers extraordinaire that will easily mar your summer tanned thigh with scratches. Larger agaves are most dangerous because their tips sit at arm or head level.
Rather than say good bye to your agaves, you can give them a trim to render the spines far less brutal without spoiling their look. Use very sharp shears or clippers to carefully nip the sharp off the end of each leaf. Cut only the fingernail-hard part, not the softer succulent flesh. Once done these will not grow back, but you may have to trim again when new leaves mature.
If you’re planning to get into cacti this year, be advised that all are not created equal. The ever popular golden barrel with its bright yellow spines is among the most painful. They seem to cause more irritation to the skin than other barrel species. Avoid placing golden barrels near active outdoor living spaces, or where kids and pets play. The prickly pear, or what most folks call paddle cactus is among the largest and most common types of cultivated cactus. They root virtually anywhere and withstand the most brutal heat and drought. These cacti bear large sharp spines that are readily visible. But around the base of the big spines are near microscopic hair-like glochids. These look like benign soft fuzz but are by far the most devastating. Once they enter the skin these are nearly impossible to remove. Some cacti experts ban prickly pear from gardens because merely brushing against one can cause pain and dermatitis. Even gloves are not immune. Gloves can become infested with glochids, inadvertently introducing them into pockets and shoes. Particularly beware of the Mickey Mouse or Teddy bear types because their quaint looks mask a brutal nature. The bright red and very sweet prickly pear fruit can be attractive to dogs, leaving them with a mouth full of glochids as well.Firesticks, the darlings of florists and high end nurseries are red tinted varieties of the pencil tree euphorbia. The euphorbia plant contains a caustic white latex sap, and pencil tree is one of the most toxic species. Merely brush against it and the milk starts to flow. Recently a friend’s husband pruned a large pencil tree and was careful to wash hands and face after the job. But he didn’t change his tee shirt which was covered with latex splatter. That night he took his shirt off, it rubbed it against his face and the toxic sap entered his eye. That fellow spent the evening in the ER in excruciating pain! Be aware of how you discard all of these plants. Loose prickly pear cuttings in the garbage may bedevil a sanitation worker for weeks. Ditto fresh cut euphorbia. It’s best to wrap these sharp fellows with many layers of newspaper or carpet padding before you bag them up.If you’re digging succulents but have kids or pets, think twice about what sorts you bring into your yard. Whenever possible remove the tips of sharp thorns to render them less dangerous without disfiguring their beauty. Be careful where you plant so you don’t set up a hazardous situation to foot traffic. Avoid plants with glochids to prevent accidental infestation. And when it comes to euphorbias, know that all contain toxic latex. Fortunately these few problem children are only a small percentage of an enormous family of new and exciting garden plants.