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.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “Do You Have Hyacinth Fingers?

  1. Hi there, I got this on my right hand only…which is the hand I garden with and I was just pulling weeds. My fingers look just like this. It dries out and then starts splitting really easy. So no bulbs, just dandelion weeds, other weeds in our garden which I don’t know the name of. So thought I would share…it took me about 3 weeks for my hands to heal from gardening without gloves before I went home to visit my family in South Africa…came back, gardened the next day without my gloves and guess what happened to my right hand…so looks like I have a sensitivity to the weeds in my garden…never had this before until this past spring…which is strange….

  2. Ok well this is a huge bummer! I just received my long awaited bulbs for fall planting, opened the box and my neck started itching. I broke out in a burning, fire, itchy rash on my face and ears, etc. After showering off and lots of peppermint oil applied topically and benadryl I’m feeling better. Thanks for this article so I know what is going on. I will now need to hire someone to plant these…Or maybe just sell them :'( I’m not sure if the flower will bother me too. I never noticed issues with the flowers in the past, however.

    • I also eagerly awaited my bulbs. The hyacinth bulbs had to be immediately opened as there were mushy, rotting bulbs in all three bags. Within minutes my face and neck were tingling and burning and I quickly stopped handling them and washed with soap and water, took a Benadryl and had my husband put on gloves and complete the task.

  3. 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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