There are some fairly formidable plants in the Cayman Islands. If you are contemplating a hike in the bush, it would be wise to go in the company of someone who is familiar with the more hazardous plant life.
Dangerous plants and trees can appear in your garden by natural means – so being able to identify them is a useful skill.
Maiden Plum (Comocladia dentata) is common in the Cayman Islands. It is highly opportunistic, and often the first plant to colonize newly cleared ground. It is commonly found as a small shrub around ankle height; also as a thin, rangy bush of 2 meters in height. It will occasionally grow into a full-sized tree. Maiden Plum is easily identified by its distinctive waxy leaves, with serrated edges. The leaves are generally olive green in colour, occasionally speckled.
Maiden Plum is a fragile plant and can be damaged by even slight contact (such as brushing past the leaves). This encourages the plant to release a odorous and highly caustic sap, which has the potential to permanently stain clothing black, and can penetrate human skin. Though not immediately irritant on skin, the contact site will develop into a red welt after 24 hours, becoming increasingly inflamed and sore over the following weeks, developing into a wet, raw, open sore. Sap can be transferred unknowingly from the hands to the face and eyes, by wiping sweat from the face. Sap cannot easily be removed from the skin by washing. Some neutralizing effect has been observed by applying acidic fruit juice (lemon and lime) directly to the skin, as soon as possible after contact.
Lady Hair (Malpighia cubensis) is a common shrub, usually found as a compact, attractive bush up to 2 meters in height. The underside of the small, elongate leaves are lined with fine hairs which detach from the plant at the slightest touch. These hairs are highly irritant, attaching to and working their way through clothing, prickling into the skin.
On contact, clothing covered with hairs should be removed immediately. Hairs can be removed from clothes and skin using duct tape and tweezers. Once the hairs are physically removed, the associated irritation quickly abates.
Cow itch (Mucuna pruriens) is a climbing shrub with long vines. When the plant is young, it is almost completely covered with fuzzy hairs, but when older, it is almost free of hairs. The sides of the leaves are often heavily grooved and the tips are pointy. Cow itch bears hanging purple flowers, and pods (5-10cm long) which are also covered in loose orange hairs, somewhat resembling furry caterpillars.
Cow itch hairs are fragile and can be removed by the slightest touch. They can even be detached in the wind and blown for some distance, attaching to clothes, washing, furnishing covers etc. The hairs cause a severe, almost unbearable itch if they come in contact with the skin. (Cow Itch hairs are the active ingredient in Itching Powder.)
One should avoid scratching the exposed area since this causes the hands to transfer the chemical to all other areas touched. Once this happens, one tends to scratch vigorously and uncontrollably. All contact with the face and eyes should be avoided. Affected clothes should be removed and medical assistance sought. In the absence of medical assistance, hairs can be physically removed with tweezers. Submersion of the affected area in hot (as bearable) water, and the topical application of Benadryl cream (or similar) may provide some relief.
Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is common in the Cayman Islands. It is most often encountered as a compact bush of 1-2 meters in height, or as a fully grown tree. Manchineel is easily identified by its distinctive leaves: round, finely edged, with long thin stems – they resemble miniature tennis rackets. Their fruit resemble miniature apples – green when young, turning yellower as they ripen, with a pleasant sweet smelling fragrance.
The leaves, bark, sap and apple like fruit of the Manchineel are all very dangerous. Contact with any of these will cause severe blistering or burning of the skin. Eating the fruit of the Manchineel can cause death – just tasting it will cause blistering and swelling of the throat. Burning the leaves and wood is dangerous. Inhaling the smoke causes blistering of the skin. Getting the smoke in the eyes can cause blindness. If it rains never take shelter under a Manchineel trees. Water dripping from the leaves will carry the sap with it, causing blistering of the skin.
In case of contact, immediate cleansing of the skin with soap and water should be undertaken to remove any plant latex, being careful not to further spread the exposure. Immediate medical attention should be sought.