Bulbs Seasonal allergies

Do You Have Hyacinth Fingers?

Handling hyacinth bulbs can lead to contact dermatitis. Photo: hedgerowrose.com

Or maybe tulip itch? Or lily rash?

These are all forms of contact dermatitis you can get by handling fall bulbs. 

Most of these are only seen in bulb workers who handle thousands of bulbs each day for weeks at a time, but then, there are always sensitive individuals who react to only the slightest contact and can come away with itchy fingers just from handling a few bulbs. 

The cause varies according to the bulb that affects you. You might be allergic (in which case, you’d have to have been sensibilized to the allergen by a previous contact) or are reacting to some irritating chemical present in the bulb. 

In tulips, the main cause seems to be tuliposide and tulipaline, two allergens. A similar type of tuliposide is found in garlic, onions and shallots and yes, some people, especially cooks, suffer dermatitis from handling them too. In lilies, snowdrops and narcissus, it can be a combination of allergenic and irritant contact dermatitis and is called lily rash (yes, even when you handle narcissus). 

Hyacinth bulbs are the worst. Most people will react to the calcium oxalate crystals, an irritant, they contain, although if you only handle a few dozen, the symptoms are generally so mild (slightly itchy fingers) that you probably wouldn’t notice unless someone specifically asked you while you were planting them.

Irritation due to Contact dermatitis on fingers
Serious irritation usually only occurs in professional bulb handlers. Photo: occderm.asn.au

Symptoms of contact dermatitis are generally … itchy fingers. The thumb and forefinger for small bulbs, because you only need those two fingers to handle them. Add the middle finger for larger ones, as you use that one too. It rarely goes beyond that in the case of casual handling, but with professional bulb pickers, the hands and forearms, even the face, can be affected by a rash: redness, swelling, itching, eczema and even blisters.

Should You Worry?

Wearing gloves while handling hyacinth bulbs
Just wear gloves when you handle bulbs, especially hyacinths. Photo: gardeningknowhow.com

If you’ve never noticed such a reaction, no. But if you’ve noticed a strange irritation after handling bulbs in the past or have a history of sensitive skin, the solution is simple: just wear protective gloves when planting them. 

I’ve planted bulbs almost annually for over 35 years and never noticed anything, but a friend of mine just as passionate about bulbs breaks out whenever she handles hyacinth bulbs. And just hyacinth bulbs. She’s never reacted to any other kind.

The treatment if you do break out? Just wash skin thoroughly with soap and water. An antihistamine may help relieve the itching. And wear gloves the next time! 

Hyacinth fingers, tulip itch and lily rash: they’re not particularly common among casual bulb handlers like home gardeners, but I thought I’d let you know just in case.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

1 comment on “Do You Have Hyacinth Fingers?

  1. Some arborists experience minor allergic reactions to species that seem to be so innocent to everyone else. Rhus lancea is actually related to poison oak! Schinus molle can cause similar allergic reactions. I happen to be allergic to the Grevilleas.

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