Phytophotodermatitis and the Fig Tree from Hades

My fig tree is a diabolical, horticultural menace sprouted from a demon seed. I’ve tried to kill it, but it won’t die.

In general, I love trees, and figs, but this particular fig tree (Ficus carica for the Latin purists out there) has sorely offended me. It has attacked me, causing, as they say, bodily harm.

Fig Tree from Hell crop
My fig tree shortly after its attack. Looks innocent, doesn’t it?

And to top that, it doesn’t even produce edible figs. Some people call them goat figs, because only goats are undiscriminating enough to eat them. I’m guessing any goats eating my figs will be cursed — for eternity.

Fig Leaf

The conflict began like most conflicts, with an innocent encounter. I was using a water hose to tunnel under a concrete slab to install a 3-inch diameter drainage pipe. I then inserted a five-foot long piece of pipe. So far, so good.

But I decided I needed to replace that pipe with a longer, more flexible pipe, which promptly got stuck in the hole. Looking into the tunnel I’d made I saw that some relatively small roots were now in the way. I cut them with a lopper and then blindly inserted my left hand into the hole to help pull the pipe through.

It was a tight fit, and the back of my hand was grinding into the sand and the cut ends of the roots as I tussled with the pipe and finally pulled it through the hole. There was no pain associated with the sandpapering of my hand. But, as I later realized, I was grinding something toxic into the skin.

The next morning I looked at an irregular shaped red blotching on the hand. I assumed that the sandpapering from grinding against the sand grains had irritated the skin. But as time went on, the discoloration got worse, not better. A physician friend recommended a combined antibiotic and topical steroidal ointment, and bandages to protect the irritated skin. Dutifully applied for several days, that treatment resulted in absolutely no improvement. In fact, the discoloration seemed to worsen.

I continued to work on the drainage project outside, and, as it turned out, sun light seemed to make the discoloration worse.

A week later when irregular shaped blisters erupted, I realized that my skin had reacted to something in the sand, and the most likely candidate was fig tree sap from the roots I’d cut moments before inserting my hand.

The Internet revealed that fig tree sap was highly irritating to human skin. In fact, it appears to be an effective chemical weapon.

One Week Blisters
Warning: when magnified this looks pretty gross.

Quoting from, “Phytophotodermatitis is an acute skin reaction that may be easily confused with other causes of contact dermatitis. It is characterized by sunburn, blisters, and/or hyperpigmentation. The reaction takes place when certain plant substances known as psoralens, after being activated by ultraviolet light from the sun, come in contact with the skin. This report describes phytodermatitis due to contact with figs. (Watemberg 1991)”

Amazingly, the discoloration of my hand is still visible 6 weeks after the insult. But, I’m happy to report, that fig tree is not; visible that is. It was cut low to the ground. Eerily, it’s toxic sticky sap continuously coats the stump, so apparently that bedeviled fig tree is not entirely finished with its mayhem.

That sappy stump will, no doubt, be plotting a comeback this winter, out of pure botanical meanness. But I am firmly set on a plan of containment. Only time will tell whose chemical weapons are the more effective, the tree’s or mine.

Strangely, my war with the fig tree got me to thinking about art censorship. It’s true.

Most art devotees are aware of the stylistic device of  placing a sculpted fig leaf in a strategic  location to disguise the anatomical humanness of otherwise manly looking gods or athletes. Apparently, this form of censorship was foisted upon the art world by powerful religious prudes of  the Enlightenment.

Two Weeks Fig Sap
Two weeks after exposure to fig sap.

Well, as I sulked about my long-lasting dermatological insult, I  got to wondering; why would anybody even think of putting a fig leaf anywhere near what is arguably a sensitive part of the human body? 421848-statue_with_a_fig_leaf

I strongly suspect that the artisans would not have deliberately incorporated fig leaves as part of their design, because they probably knew all too well just how irritating fig leaves can be.

I imagine Adam and Eve were both made rather uncomfortable by their leaves. Perhaps that was part of God’s revenge for their disobedience. Makes me wince to think of it.

But I digress. This current horror story ends like most horror stories; the foe fig is vanquished at the end. But just before the ending credits role, you catch a glimpse of the fig tree stump, still pulsing its hellish chemical weapons, and not at all fully dead. For all I know, it may already be planning its sequel, where it turns really nasty.

Lesson learned: I’ll be waiting for it, with gloved hands next time.



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