Bougainvilleas are one of the most popular tropical plants to grow. They are common to Mediterranean areas and the Southern Hemisphere. They bloom in massive displays of reds and pinks. Bougainvilleas grow thorns on their branches that are toxic to the touch and cause contact dermatitis. Some newer varieties of bougainvillea are nearly thornless.
Bougainvillea is a tropical and semi-tropical woody evergreen vine. It has many trunks and winding branches that grow to a height of 20 to 25 feet. Bougainvillea flowers are small and white, surrounded by colorful paper-thin bracts. Leaves are dark green and ovoid or heart-shaped. The trunk and branches are covered with needlelike spines. The spines are tipped in a black, waxlike substance.
The waxlike substance on bougainvillea spines is toxic and causes skin irritation when touched. This skin rash is known as contact dermatitis. Bougainvillea is not considered a toxic plant to ingest. It is listed by the University of Iowa Hospital as nontoxic. The skin rash is a potential irritant to pets as well as children and adults.
Symptoms of bougainvillea toxicity are a skin inflammation and rash on the body parts that were scratched by bougainvillea thorns. The rash is itchy, confined to a particular area and has clearly defined edges. The rash may develop within a few minutes if scratches are extensive or deep. Itching can be severe, and the rash may develop small red bumps or blisters.
Treatment for bougainvillea toxicity is the same as in all cases of contact dermatitis. Wash the area that has come into contact with the thorns. Use mild soap and water to remove the remaining toxic substance from the skin. If the rash is severe, use a wet gauze bandage as a covering. Change this frequently so gauze remains cool to the touch. The rash and redness usually heal within one week if there is no more exposure to the toxic thorns.
The most effective solution to bougainvillea toxicity is to wear heavy garden gloves and long sleeves when working with the plant. It is toxic only when skin is scraped by the thorns. There are several nearly thornless varieties of bougainvillea available in the 'Bambino' series of dwarf plants.