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.
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?
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.