Dangerous Dieffenbachia and the use of Pee

Costa Rica Waterfall HikeAll my life I’ve been a nature girl. I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail and traipsed around Montana’s Rocky Mountains. Living in Costa Rica has qualified me for jungle woman status. At least I thought so. I go barefoot, climb muddy slopes and at times, I even act like a monkey. However I’ve learned that to be a real jungle woman you’ve got to survive the initiation. Experience, as always, is the best teacher and that’s how I learn – the hard way.

      In the jungle, common sense is key. It’s best to look first before you grab a tree branch because they say a bite from a Bullet Ant will knock you to the ground. Stay on clear trails so you can see what is underfoot. I use whatever common sense I can muster, but sometimes it just eludes me. That was the case one day at the waterfall, when I was attacked by a plant! It was my fault, really – I threw the first punch.

I’d found a nice flat rock in the middle of the stream, perfect for sunbathing. I thought I’d be like a real native and use the huge, heart shaped leaf of a plant for a mat to lay on. I grabbed hold of the stem and tore off the leaf as a young boy sat by and watched. Immediately I tossed the leaf away, “Aye, huele malo! (it smells bad)” I exclaimed. The kid laughed.

Soon my hands began to tingle. That was weird. I washed them in the stream but it made no difference. The tingling grew into painful pin pricks. Born and raised right nearby, my little friend knew what was happening to me. I wish he had warned me. I told him if I died to please return my dog home. He told me not to worry, I’d survive, but it may take all day for the pain to subside.

The tingling moved up my wrists into my lower arms and I wondered what other effects would come next. But that was all. The pain was mostly gone in two hours but some tingling lingered into the next morning. The places that had come into direct contact with the sap were swollen, red and sore. The second day, a rash appeared in random areas on my hands and forearms.

      For the next ten days the rash diminished in some areas and showed up in others. This plant was potent and it’s poison was still in my system. When I told of my alarming plant experience, everyone wanted to know what kind of plant it was. I had no photo and a description from my memory was of little use. So I grabbed my friend Ricky and my camera and went back to the waterfall.

We asked some locals and were told that there are various poisonous plants in the jungle. They pointed out a few, right where we were standing. With thick, green stems and large, flat leaves, they all looked alike to me. To establish a correct identity, I would have to go back to the very same plant that got me. As we headed out we were warned about the milk of the plant and told, “If you get it on your skin you must pee on it.” – on your skin, that is, not on the plant!

Off we trudged, up to the waterfall. There had been lots of rain, in recent days and the river was flowing fast. After crossing it several times, we went up the hill and then down into the jungle. A well worn path runs parallel above the stream. As we trekked through the damp, profuse herbage, I scanned a million different kinds of plants, many similar to the creepy one, yet all looking deceptively innocent. We crossed the rocky creek a few more times and then scampered up hill to the waterfall. The fifty foot falls rushed, surged and blasted water over the rocks and down the side of the mountain. It was pounding furiously, throwing tons of water per second.

Costa Rica Waterfall Hike

Top of the Waterfall

      The plant in question was above the waterfall so we had to climb further. Close to the top, where the trail was slippery and slim, Ricky quit on me. Down he sat, getting comfortable on a rock overlooking the falls, and said, “I’m not going any further.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “What happened to my friend Ricky, the jungle man? I thought you were here to protect me.”

“It’s too dangerous, I’m not going.” He said with resolve. No use in arguing, I’d go it alone, risking life and limb for scientific research. I climbed carefully, step by step, grabbing at tree roots and looking for footholds on the muddy mountainside. Relieved to reach the top, I ambled through the river to where I’d encountered the poisonous plant.

It looked different than I remembered. The leaves were not heart shaped, but long and oval. To be absolutely certain it was the plant I was looking for, I covered my fingers for protection and snapped the stem. Out seeped white sap that stunk to high heaven: this was the suspicious shrub! After taking pictures at every possible angle, I made my way back to Ricky. Together we descended the high trail.

Down at the bottom I noticed a smaller version of the plant I’d seen above the waterfall. I pointed it out to Ricky. I was still a bit perturbed that he’d chickened out and made me climb to the top alone. Secretly hoping he would grab a leaf so I could have him test the Pee Theory.

I told him, “The only way I’d know for sure if this is the same one, is if I smelled it.” Honestly, I didn’t want him to get hurt but before I could stop him, Ricky broke off a leaf for me to smell. It was the same plant as the nasty one that had gotten me. The smell was so distinctive there was no mistake about it.

Ricky agreed, “It has a strong odor – smells very green, but stinky.”

“Watch out for the sap!” I cautioned. (Ha Ha!) Too late – it was already on his fingers. “Now you’ll have to pee on your hands – go ahead and do it. It’s for science.” I told him. He turned around and he did it. He peed on his hand! The Pee Theory was tried and found true. Ricky didn’t complain of any discomfort after that.

      When I got home, I was heartened to hear that Gringos are not the only ones who learn from unpleasant experience around here. My landlord, Charlie Bull, an old guy who’s lived here all his life, has tangled with this plant before. I showed him my photos. He had no doubt as to what it was, “We call it Dumb Cane.”

I looked it up and that is indeed what my plant appears to be: more formally called Dieffenbachia. Several sources on the internet said:

 This herb is often found in river valleys and on steep slopes. (Exactly where I found it.) Freshly cut parts are very skin irritating. (True to experience.) After one day rashes develop. (That’s just what happened to me.) Irreversible skin damage is possible. (Fortunately that did not happen.) When brought into the eye, the sap can cause injury of the cornea. All parts of this plant are very poisonous when ingested. Some investigators claim that Dieffenbachia contains an active enzyme that can cause suffocation through swelling of the throat and larynx. (Lucky for me, I may be foolish but I’m not stupid. I don’t eat the foliage.)

      Mr. Bull expounded on his experience with this toxic plant. In his younger years he owned a large cocoa plantation. “I know this plant, it was all the time on the farm,” he said in his native patois. “When they chop (to clear the vegetation) you don’t know it’s there and you walk through. It get on your feet. OOH! It hurt something terrible! But we have to work with it. We take the cacao when it fall from the ground – not so bad when its dry, but when rain come the Dumb Cane leak down onto the cacao. We throw the cacao in a bag on our back but soon it itch so bad we throw off the bag and take off our shirt. If it reach your eyes – OOH it hurt bad – you got to run to the ocean to wash. Only that helps.” I asked about the pee advice I’d been given earlier that day. Bull was not at all surprised. “Yes,” he replied, “Well, pee really work for everything. It work for the plant and if you go in the ocean and something pinch you, pee on that and it take away the pain. They say if you have good pee, it even make a wash for the eye.” (What constitutes “good” pee? I didn’t ask.)

These “wake up calls” in Costa Rica have engendered all kinds of learning experiences for me. I was once bit by a scorpion – scared more than injured. I saw a Terciopelo slithering on the jungle path ahead and learned how to avoid Costa Rica’s most dangerous snake. There has never been any serious injury or lasting damage – only enough danger to scare me. This will make me think twice before accosting a plant. And I’ll be sure to drink lots of water in case of a pee emergency.
where the poison plant was

Costa Rica Waterfall Hike


ADDENDUM:   Like drinking too much, there are some things you have to do once in a while, to remember why not to. It has been a year and a half since my “Dumb Cane” experience and I did it again. (Do they call it that because it makes you dumb?) This time I was working in my garden.

A tall dieffenbachia was in the way, making too much shade for my little flowers, but I was reluctant to move it. Ever since I recently read “The Secret Life of Plants” (Tompkins & Bird 1972), I think before I pull them out. I think about how they know I’m going to I do it. I think about how the other surrounding plants are wincing and grimacing, mad at me. Now when the guy comes to cut the grass, I ask him to first thank it and apologize for having to chop it. He just shakes his head, rolls his eyes and humors me.

I felt bad about moving this plant. I would have to take the shovel and slice the thick stem because the roots were too deep to dig up.

Costa Rica Waterfall Hike

But damn it! This was my garden and I was not going to be intimidated by what the plants were thinking. I shrugged off my distaste for violence and cut the plant.
All this ambling on about guilt over cutting plants and I neglected caution. Until I got the sap on my arm. “Oh, that’s right, this is a dieffenbachia,” I realized.” Surely my garden variety is not so potent as the jungle plant that attacked me.” Wrong! The itchy rash and bumpy welts traveling to various parts of my body was just the same. That night I slept on my side with my rashy arm resting on my torso and guess what? The rash transferred through contact.

Well, it is not really so bad this time. After a few days the symptoms calmed down and soon they will disappear altogether. Did I try the pee remedy? No, I was too preoccupied with getting my gardening job done and besides, did you ever try to pee on your upper arm? I’ll leave that for the next time I get into trouble in order to remember why not to.