Friday, February 06, 2009

Chemical Burn

I see this plant all the time at Home Depot, and thought it would make a pretty addition to my herb garden. Sure, they call it "rue" - but I figured, maybe the plant had just been saddled with a bad rap.

But no. The plant has fully earned it's name. Witness what it did to me:

That's a chemical burn caused by the above Ruta graveolens. Rue doesn't burn right away - rather, the oils get on your skin, and then intense sunlight will trigger it to bind to your DNA, effectively killing the cells.

Or, as the scientists would say:
One of the more dramatic, uncomfortable and persistent plant-and- skin conditions is phytophototoxicity. This can occur from skin contact with plants containing chemicals known as psoralens followed by exposure of the area to ultraviolet light. Psoralens sensitise the skin to sunlight and the phototoxic effects are due to ultraviolet-induced binding of these chemicals to nuclear DNA and subsequent cell death. Resultant skin damage can be severe (Lown and Sim 1978, Song andTapley 1979).

Phytophototoxicity. It's almost worth the burn to be able to say that.

Not that I knew all this off-hand. I just knew that somehow I had burned myself, and couldn't figure out how. It was a bit surreal, since generally these sort of things involve fire, or hot stoves, or other things that are hard to forget. Second-degree burns don't suddenly appear for no apparent reason, yet this one seemed to have done just that.

I looked up everything I could think of, and quickly ruled out fungus, staph, bugs, allergies and stigmata. I was stuck, and I had certainly never heard of phytophototoxicity. Nor did I think that my friendly neighborhood garden center would be selling plants that burn.

Then I found this anecdote on WebMD: The leader of a "Native American storytelling and crafts workshop" told a bunch of school children on a field trip that the Indians used to rub rue on their bodies to ward off mosquitoes. Since rue is from the Mediterranean it's a pretty safe bet that he totally made this up. I guess he figured, it kind of smells like menthol and couldn't hurt. The kids and parents dutifully smeared it over their bodies.

The article has photos of the results. Mystery solved.

Luckily the fake Injun didn't make tea for the kids. The Greeks did use rue medicinally - to induce abortions.


Aubrey said...

What was the end result from your burn. I think I may have gotten the same burn but I am not sure.

Anonymous said...

I come from Lithuania, and rue is a traditional plant there. The burns go away eventually, but that takes a while. Some people have only discoloration of skin and no actual burning sensation at all.
Two moths ago I was painting a deck at home, and I have a large rue plant right next to it. Since the day was sunny, I have rue marks all over my hands and legs. It did not hurt at all, no blistering (as I said, everybody has different reaction to it), but two months later, the marks are faded, but still visible.