Wendy's Wanderings

Wendy Wilber

May 9, 2017

Figs and Flip Flops

I was only going to work in the yard for a few minutes; that's why I was wearing flip flops.

Three hours later, an unproductive fig tree had been pruned to the ground and my brand-new folding saw had been properly broken in. I stepped away from the project satisfied that the fig was going to come back in a few months and maybe have a new outlook on life.

What I didn't know was that within 24 hours, I would experience the fig's wrath (revenge).

The next day a red burn the size of a fig newton was across my toes. Maybe I had brushed against some poison ivy? No, that wasn't possible. What was possible was that fig sap had splashed onto my flip-flopped foot. By the end of the next day blisters had formed—I couldn't even put on a shoe.

Why I was having this reaction to fig sap, and why had I never heard of this before? A quick check of UF/IFAS reference material gave me my answer.

"Edible fig (Ficus carica) latex contains a proteolytic enzyme (ficin, used to tenderize meat) that in part is responsible for an irritant dermatitis. The leaves of F. carica contain furanocoumarins, contact with which is associated with phytophotodermatitis. Following contact and exposure of skin to sunlight, severe erythema and blistering develop over the next 48 hours often followed by a period of prolonged hyper-pigmentation of affected skin."

The document—by John McLaughlin at the Miami-Dade County Extension office—fails to mention that the condition is really painful as well.

The same phytophotodermititis can happen when gardeners come in contact with the sap of members of the Rutaceae family, especially Persian limes. Lime poisoning is a chemical reaction which makes the skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light, resulting in burns and blisters.

I am quickly recovering from my condition known officially as "ficin dermatitis" and I can finally wear a real shoe, but the fading burn mark will remind me to wear proper gardening footwear and clothing. Flip flops maybe the official shoes of Florida, but they are not for gardening, especially around figs.

-- Wendy Wilber

Return to the May 2017 Neighborhood Gardener