toxicity of milkweed
Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)

Most of us who want to encourage butterflies in our garden grow milkweed. The toxicity of milkweed to humans is often forgotten. This happened to Meta in early April. Meta has been a long-time subscriber to my blog. We have gotten together several times over the years to share our love of gardening and butterflies.

She was in her garden around noon on a very warm day to prune the milkweeds. This encourages them to be bushy rather than spindly. She was not wearing gloves and as sweat dripped into her eyes, she frequently rubbed her eyes to clear the sweat away. Without realizing it, she got some of the sap in her eyes.

A little while later, she began to experience extreme pain in both eyes. By 8:30 in the evening, she could no longer see and her son, David, called the on-call ophthalmologist who met them at the clinic an hour later. She had a large cornea scratch on her left eye due to all the rubbing she had done. The doctor’s main concerns were clearing all the toxicity out of both of her eyes and avoiding infection in the eyes. Meta was terrified she would permanently lose her eyesight.

It took two visits to the on-call doctor, two visits to her regular eye doctor, a regime of eye drops at home plus eleven days of recovery before her eyesight was fully restored.

Meta now wears gloves, a headband to keep sweat out of her eyes, and protective glasses. I encourage all of you to wear protective gear when working in the yard. I started wearing a hat a few summers ago because sun damage growths were forming on my ears.

According to the University of Florida, even small amounts of exposure to milkweed sap, which contains latex, can cause “corneal abrasions, edema (swelling), loss of corneal transparency and folds in the cornea.”

Over the years of writing this blog, I have tried to include the botanical name as well as the common name of the plants I feature. Milkweeds belong to the asclepias family but a few belong to the euphorbia family (also known as spurge). Many euphorbias also have a white milky sap that is toxic – croton, poinsettia, miniature firetail (often sold in hanging baskets), and a few succulents. In general, garden with care when you cut into a plant that oozes white sap.