The pretty palm tree that can bring a world of pain

Phoenix palms all in a row at Palmerston North's Esplanade.

Phoenix palms all in a row at Palmerston North's Esplanade.

Phoenix palm trees with their poisonous stabbing frond spikes are taking a heavy toll on Kiwis.

A search of ACC claim form records for possible phoenix palm spike injuries revealed 644 claims at a cost of $193,029 in 2016. That's up from 577 claims in 2015 and 622 claims in 2014.

The overall picture is a steady stream of injuries bad enough to need medical attention. Many more injuries must go unreported.

The spikes at the base of the crown of foliage are the problem. They are super sharp and slice into the body effortlessly.

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A cat up in a phoenix palm tree among dead fronds. Amazingly it came out unscathed.
Rob Kitchin

A cat up in a phoenix palm tree among dead fronds. Amazingly it came out unscathed.

The fronds can cause infection - and just how serious that can be was discovered by Andrew Faulkner who was pruning dead fronds on his Coromandel property some years ago.

He didn't wear gloves and a spike entered his first knuckle joint of the index finger. He thought little of it but within a day or two it was clearly infected. 

Faulkner says intravenous antibiotics were used to try and clear it up.

"This temporarily pushed back the swelling and redness, which was tracking further down the back of my hand."

He was in Australia when the hand's swelling began again. An Australia GP organised an MRI scan and an operation within 24 hours. A piece of palm spike about 2mm long was removed from within the joint.

But once again the finger started swelling after it had seemed to recover. A blood sample revealed a plant fungus infection.

Faulkner says it took a rare oral drug prescribed by an infectious disease specialist in Brisbane to finally cure the problem. The drug had to be flown to Brisbane from Adelaide and a month's course cost $4000.

He hasn't pulled out the palms because "they look great and I suppose I consider it my own fault".

Faulkner says he now wears "high impact robust industrial gloves" when pruning and does it with great care.

WEAR SAFETY GEAR

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A report to the annual Annual Scientific Congress of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons this month on "penetrating palm frond injuries" called for palm tree owners to wear the right protective gear.

Gold Coast orthopaedics surgeon Anthony Silva reported on a review of 45 palm frond injuries that ended up in hospital.

Forty injuries affected the body and five damaged eyes. About two-thirds came from people gardening, the rest were work-related. 

The injuries included bits of spike left behind as well as wound infections. Half the patients needed surgery to get bits of spike out.

Silva said tests showed leather and latex-coated gloves prevented spike wounds 18/20 and 19/20 times respectively, while cloth gloves were ineffective.

Wellington-based Treescape business manager Kevin Birdsall says even with the right safety equipment and right techniques, his arborists still get damaged by the spikes.

"I have had a few guys had to go to the doctor because the tips have broken off inside. A bit of local and doctors pop them out.

"I've had guys who have had them in their arms, hands, legs ... I've had one guy stand on one and it went through his boot. One guy got one in his lip. He was cutting with a chainsaw and it flicked up. So you get them all over the place, it's not just getting spikes in the hands."

Birdsall recommends home owners use experts to do palm maintenance. If they must do it themselves, he says use puncture-resistant gloves. The palms need pruning before the fronds die and fall to the ground where children can come in contact with the dangerous spikes.

​"When the spikes die back from the dead frond they get a fungus on the tip. It's that fungus that causes the harm. The spikes do hurt and cause a bit of an injury, but when it leaves some fungus inside as well it creates an infection," Birdsall says.

 - Stuff

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