Fellow bushcrafter, Tom Davenport, wrote me to describe a nasty allergic reaction he had while making cordage with agave. Tom wrote: “Be advised that some species of agave have toxins in the pulp that can cause a nasty batch of contact dermatitis.” Tom went on to say that when he was preparing a piece of agave some of the pulp landed on his exposed arms, legs and face. The reaction wasn’t immediate but after a while he began feeling a “burning itch.” Tom said, “[The itch] was the kind that fogs your mind.” Tom added that the irritation was so severe that parts of his skin became blistered.
Agave species range across the Southwest and Western states from Texas to California but can also be found in Louisiana and Florida. Keep in mind that not all people experience reactions to agave. These types of contact dermatitis also vary in intensity among individuals. In other words, one person might have a severe reaction while someone else has only a mild reaction and still others have no reaction at all. I’ve never had any sort of incident with agave even after handling it for decades but please allow me to inject an anecdote into this conversation. Years ago I came across an interesting “weed” floating in the waters of the Laguna Madre along the South Texas coast. I picked up this weed and examined it then handed it to my professor who held it for about two seconds then quickly handed it to another student. The student gave the weed back to me and both she and the professor asked, “Doesn’t that burn you?” No, it did not burn me but as it turned out I was holding a species of stinging coral. A few years ago, however, I was making a couple of knife handles using Texas ebony and though I was wearing a dust mask I must have somehow ingested some of the wood dust. Within a few minutes I had broken out in hives along my trunk. My point is that we all have what’s called a biophysiological individuality—just like some people have serious allergies to peanut butter or tomatoes or kiwi fruit. The list is long but the toxins come basically from these chemical groups—calcium oxalate, bromelain, isothiocyanates, diterpene esters, protoanemonin, and alkaloids.
The moral of this story is that we should always be careful when dealing with plants. Remember that plants have evolved methods to dissuade predators from eating them. Chile del monte, jalapeños and serrano didn’t acquire their spicy hot taste to suit your palate. Stinging nettles sting to dissuade critters that might want to eat them. Just like spines on cactus and thorns on shrubs and trees, plants adopted those protective methods that were selected for over millions of years.
The best advice I can give is to be careful and carry items with you as first aid in case you have a reaction to some plant. Here’s a prudent list of items you should carry in your pack or vehicle when on extended forays into the wilds.
EpiPen—a quick injectable dose of epinephrine. Ask your doctor for a prescription.
Topical cortisone cream
In addition carry the following:
Triple Antibiotic Cream
A good set of tweezers. Don’t scrimp here. Buy the best with a fine pointed end.
Bandages, various sizes
Sunscreen 70 SPF or greater