Q: A friend gave me some hyacinth and paperwhite bulbs to grow indoors for Easter. Shortly after I planted them, my face started to itch and burn. I assume I touched the bulbs and then touched my face. What caused this?
A: Both paperwhite and hyacinth bulbs can cause skin irritation, as can tulip bulbs. It’s called contact dermatitis, and usually it’s minor and goes away quickly. People who work with bulbs for a living sometimes have more serious skin reactions. It happens often enough that there are names for it such as “lily rash,” “tulip fingers” and “hyacinth itch.”
Narcissus can cause dermatitis in some people who come into contact with any part of the plant: the bulbs, stems and flowers.
Tulip bulbs can also cause skin reactions, especially among people who handle them repeatedly. Some people have no reaction at first but gradually develop a sensitivity.
Hyacinth bulbs cause reactions in a lot of people, even people who touch them only once. The bulbs contain calcium oxalate crystals, which irritate the skin. The plant itself contains oxalic acid. The good thing about this is that if you plant hyacinths outdoors, they are less likely than some other bulbs to be destroyed by animals. But the bad thing is that handling the bulbs can cause itching and burning.
It’s a good idea to wear gloves and long sleeves when handling bulbs, and then wash your clothing afterward. The irritant can get through cloth gloves and even latex gloves, so if you know you are sensitive, it’s best to wear nitrile gloves. Wash your hands after handling bulbs, and be careful not to accidentally transfer the irritant to more sensitive skin on other parts of your body.
Hyacinth, narcissus and daffodil bulbs are also poisonous if eaten. Best to keep them out of reach of children and away from pets.
Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County.