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Cow Itch, a really evil minded plant

In the dry season you will see here and there a vine climbing high into the bamboo or whatever tree it has decided to cover. Hanging from the vine will be golden to dark brown pods some three to four inches in length. And it is these pods that cause the problem. I have no idea why it is called ‘Cow’ itch because, as far as I am concerned, it is humans who suffer. And how we suffer. The pods are covered in a fine hair, which is an extreme irritant.

Its Latin name is Mucuna pruriens and it is common throughout the Caribbean. I had heard that it was used as a worm medicine for children but could not believe that anyone in their right mind would attempt to harvest these horrendous seed pods. However I have since discovered that it is the vine that is used NOT the pod…great sigh of relief on my part!

The major problem with the hair is not the colliding with it whilst struggling through the bush, a fact of life for those who do that sort of thing and believe me, the worst-case scenario. No, it is the fact that during the lovely hot, breezy weather of the dry season the hair comes off the pods and travels with the wind. And land on your cushions, on your washing hanging out to dry, on your bed, which you forgot to make! And of course wearing the skimpiest of clothing to enjoy the warmth, you sit on your cushions, you put on your dry clothes which you carefully washed inside out and you lie on your bed at night in as little as possible as the nights are so warm. And in minutes you are scratching, a little at first then more and more and more until you realize the problem and leap into the shower in an attempt to rid yourself of the feeling to scream with irritation and pain. Believe me I know, it has happened to me too often.

There are local remedies all of which involve spreading some kind of oil (including diesel oil) one way up or down the effected part. It may work, but I refuse to use these techniques, as the thought of trying to rid myself of some poor quality oil from my body does not appeal. My method is simply to get under the shower and rub and rub and rub until the pain subsides enough for me to feel human again and no longer a frenzied maniac. And if you think I am exaggerating, consider this. There is a strictly policed law in Trinidad & Tobago, which forbids the use of Cow Itch pods for any purpose. In the past, and probably it still goes on, anyone with a grudge can upset the person causing the grudge by ‘cow Itching’ the inside of their car, or verandah seats or anything else that will cause the sort of pain that only cow itch can achieve.  

The other side of the plant is its amazing ability to stay dormant as a seed in the ground until the right growing conditions prevail. I have personally attempted to eradicate it by constantly pulling up seedlings or cutting young vine. Gradually there was less and less as trees and bamboo grew and the land became the shady place that I wanted. We had one bush fire last year, causing the bamboo clumps to explode and sending the bamboos crashing earthwards like a Hugh bundle of ‘pick-up-sticks’. The leaves fell from the bamboos, the trees lost a lot of their leaves and as soon as the rains started out popped the cow-itch, and in quantities that I could not believe. We started to get rid of it but the mass of fallen bamboo prevented us from getting access and pretty soon the vines festooned the fallen bamboos and started to climb the new growth. In the next few years as the bamboos grow back and the trees give more shade, the cow itch will disappear again, but it is waiting for the day when light comes back to the soil and it will instantly get a hold. One of the difficulties for people clearing land is within weeks of the rains starting the grass starts to grow and inside it, hidden from site, the cow itch vine grows in profusion and you only become aware of it when, in the dry season, the grass dies and there are all those wonderful pods just waiting for you.

As an aside to all this, small boys en- route for the beach have been known to cow itch each other in the head as a game & then dash for the sea to get relief that prolonged periods in the water can bring. & if that’s a Tobago game, you can, as they say, keep it.

Written by Mark Puddy

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