18 Feb 2019

Phoenix palm: beware the undercover menace in your garden

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:32 pm on 18 February 2019

Phoenix palms are found everywhere in New Zealand, but their fronds are highly poisonous and they are the cause of half of all hand surgery in New Zealand.

At the end of last year poet and gardener Janice Marriott found out first hand just how disabling getting pricked by a phoenix palm frond can be.

Phoenix palm

Phoenix palm Photo: Wikimedia commons

It happened the day before New Year when she was working alone in her garden.

“I felt this prick, just a tiny little prick and the pain just four hours later was just excruciating and the finger was the size of a small banana, but I was kind of delirious and I didn’t go to the hospital.”

It wasn’t until the next morning that she presented to A&E, she told Jesse Mulligan.

My niece said to me ‘what’s the matter you sound weird on the phone?’, so I went to the hospital and as soon as I mentioned those magic words phoenix palm the receptionist, this is Auckland City Hospital, ‘Oh you’ll be head of the queue, you won’t have to wait.’

Before she knew it she was being transferred to Middlemore.

“I’m still a bit fuzzy… I remember being wheeled into this operating theatre, it all happened really quickly and I was still wearing my gardening crocs!

“When I woke up, they were wheeling me along the corridor it was dark by then and suddenly someone yelled stop and we all looked out of the window and there were all the fireworks and it was New Year’s Eve.”

She spent the next week in hospital with her “arm hanging from the ceiling”.

The palm frond gave her something called tenosynovitis which is inflammation of the tendon around the nerve sheaf.

“It wasn’t an infection they discovered, it was a chemical reaction; a medical word for poisoning from the phoenix palm.

“I’ve now got this big lump, a mass of tissue which is under the skin, which is what this does to you, which means I can’t move the finger.”

Janice Marriott

Janice Marriott Photo: www.janicemarriott.com

Janice says the head hand surgeon at Middlemore told her that 50 percent of their hand surgery is phoenix palm related and 2.6 percent of all surgery is phoenix palm surgery

“He said that they’ve tried to get them banned from sale in garden centres.”

When Janice started looking in to the problem she says arborists told her “lots of horror stories about hospitalisation and the rest and masses of antibiotics.”

If a prick from a frond wasn’t bad enough, the palm’s sap is corrosive to chainsaws, she says.

The palm is introduced, from the Canary Islands and it is common throughout New Zealand.

“They are everywhere, right outside the door of my grandson’s class room is a small one and small is much more dangerous because it’s more reachable.

“They also have roots that just spread out right across your garden into the neighbours and beyond looking for water they will suck the moisture out of your garden.”

Putting them in pots is not the answer either, she says.

“It still has those poisonous spikes on it and in fact they’re more reachable in a pot than a very tall palm.”

“The bits to worry about are the new fronds, the spikes of the brand new ones that are coming out of the stem.”

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