Be savvy with plants too hot to handle

Certain plants are too hot to handle, but the savvy gardener is aware of this and takes measures to avoid injury. Yet others are too hot to ingest comfortably and can catch us unawares.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 10:00 am
The chilli pepper Medina, which is moderately hot and needs careful handling to avoid irritation on the skin when opened.

This fellow has had a brush with most of them over time and subsequently carries a mental list of offenders which activates an alarm whenever I'm in their presence. Once bitten twice shy.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), cacti, euphorbia and Primula obconica are up there under the heading, 'contact injury, don't let them touch your skin'.

When hand-weeding without gloves between rows of emerging vegetables or hardy annuals, those tiny nettle seedlings pack quite a punch. Likewise, the mature version when lurking unseen alongside a seemingly harmless weed you pull up. The deposit of histamine and formic acid causes a painful rash that the legendary dock leaf fails to eliminate.

Handling or repotting cactus can be a tricky business. A large spike piercing the skin is very unpleasant, but the irritation is not as long-lasting as that inflicted by specimens with a mass of tiny needles that remain embedded and are too small to extract. The simple solution is to wrap the cactus body in thick newspaper or wear extra tough gloves when handling or potting.

Euphorbia plants exist in diverse variety the perennial being most popular in ornamental borders. They are also found in weed form as spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides). One thing they all have in common is a milky sap which flows whenever a leaf, flower or stem is broken. This is an irritant that causes painful blistering on contact with your skin.

Primula family members grown for spring attraction outdoors are generally captivating and safe to handle. So too are those grown in pots for indoor winter use in our homes – with one exception – Primula obconica. I first experienced it as a young gardener, at a horticultural centre where a variety of house plants were grown for courses. The irritation began on the underside of a wrist whilst repotting a batch of them. Blisters followed! When handling such plants, ordinary gloves that leave part of the wrist or lower arm exposed are no good gauntlets are more in keeping.

There are countless plants capable of causing mechanical injury as the year unfolds, some obvious; berberis, gooseberry, rose, thistle, others not so. Do handle with care, unless you wish to become a statistic.

A lovely hot meal is something to be enjoyed these cold winter days but there are different versions of what constitutes this. My vision is of steam rising from the plate and home-grown vegetables playing an important role alongside the main item. Another is the addition of a key ingredient that transforms an otherwise ordinary meal with a hot, spicy flavour.

Ginger and certain lettuce varieties are two of several additives that can do this in cooked meals or salads respectively, and both are easily grown, the former in a pot under cover, the latter in a greenhouse border or garden. Horseradish (easily grown), peppercorns and mustard add zest to a dish. Then there are chilli peppers, arguably the hottest edible plants on earth, and they can be cultivated in season if a few basic rules are followed.

The seed should be sown early (late February), 20 to 25 Celsius is required for germination, and aftergrowth is best supported by an environment of 15 to 20 Celsius plus strong light conditions. Feed the young plant with a weak seaweed-based fertilizer, changing to a balanced tomato feed when it`s in a final pot. If the plant does not start branching naturally pinch out the centre at an early stage.

Don't fret if you lack the facilities to start your own into growth. Let a professional outfit take the strain. The DT Brown (dtbrownseeds.co.uk) spring 2020 catalogue is offering the world's hottest chilli plant collection, comprising three plants in nine centimetre pots, for £11.95. 'Armageddon', 'Trinidad moruga Scorpion' and 'Carolina Reaper' are well-named. The latter is current world record holder registering 2,200,000 in Scoville heat units.

Chilli peppers have achieved the vegetable equivalent of cult status in recent times, with festivals and events throughout the country. They've been in the news recently when an extended study of 23 thousand Italians revealed that regular consumers had significantly fewer fatal heart attacks and deadly strokes. Welcome news for those following a Mediterranean style diet.

I enjoy the challenge of growing a few of the hottest chillies each year but exercise great caution when handling or ingesting. If a seed-bearing capsule is saved with raising next year's plants in mind, wear eye shields when it is eventually opened. And if you are adding 'Armageddon' or any cultivar with a reputed nuclear punch to a meal, remember, a tiny piece of the seed-bearing capsule goes a long way!