In Tucson’s vibrant desert landscape, the dramatic silhouette of the yucca plant makes it a striking addition to any drought tolerant garden. Gardeners and residents should take care however – a new Australian study has found that the razor-sharp tips of yucca plants can cause lasting ear and hearing damage.
Getting to the Point
The desert is full of plants with robust natural defenses. From the sharp spines of the organ pipe and saguaro cacti to the spiny thorns of an ocotillo or the fine, hooklike needles of a jumping cholla cactus, there are plenty of sharp ways the desert flora says “don’t touch me”.
Among this ecology, the sharp tips and edges of blade-like yucca leaves are unique in their heartiness and the damage they can do. The tips of yucca can deliver a quick and deep puncture wound to people who interact with the plant carelessly or accidentally. The spike of a yucca plant can often plunge to the level of bone and when removed leave a small, pinprick-like wound. Yucca plants are fibrous and strong, so fortunately the tip usually remains attached to the yucca blade and rarely breaks off in the skin. Unfortunately, yucca punctures can deliver some of the plant’s toxic chemicals, called “saponins” directly into the body sometimes provoking a reaction, complicating recovery and damaging red blood cells in the area.
A Real Earful
A yucca injury can happen fast. Often people miss seeing a sharp blade as they turn their head. In Melbourne, yucca is used frequently as a non-native accent plant, well adapted to Australia’s climate. However, the popularity of the plant may be responsible for the frequency of yucca-related bodily injuries.
Over a five-year period, 28 patients were admitted to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne for ear injuries involving yucca blades. While the pointed tips of yucca often make people cautious to keep the plant clear from their eyes, they are less conscientious when it came to the plant tips near the sides of their heads.
The damage yucca points can do can be serious, painful and sometimes permanent. Straight, sharp yucca blades at the right angle can stab into the ear canal and perforate the eardrum. While punctures sustained by the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane) are painful, with time and care it is possible for the perforation to heal. Yucca spines can penetrate deeper than the eardrum, however. Once a spine is has crossed through the tympanic membrane, the tiny and delicate bones of the middle ear can be reached and broken. These fragile bones, the ear’s ossicles, are necessary for full and proper hearing. Their size and precision though make it extremely difficult for the bones to mend correctly if damaged. Often, injuries to the ossicles leave a lasting impairment to a person’s hearing.
Yucca punctures that don’t harm the middle ear can still leave a mark. Saponins in yucca spines can often cause sensitivity and swelling in the area around a puncture. Often a yucca injury with be tender for a week or longer as the body recovers.
Even the Best-Laid Plants
What should you do to avoid yucca injuries? If you garden or landscape with yucca plants, take the time to trim off the spiked tips which could damage eyes and ears. Spikes that splay out at forehead level and below should be blunted to help minimize injuries. Cutting low tips off the plants helps protect children and pets from accidents.
You can also try gardening with less injurious alternatives. Some of the Arizona desert’s most striking colors come from thornless shrubs like the beautiful scarlet sprays of the chuparosa plant or the Baja fairy duster bush. The yellow bird of paradise shrub is a native plant that offers vivid color and blossoms that are reminiscent of the stacked form of yucca flowers.
If you are a full-time desert dweller or just an occasional dry lands visitor, remember to watch out for our flora and fauna! Give sharp plants a wide berth and make sure you aren’t in harms way before turning or lifting your head.
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