Pica Pica Translates to Itch Itch

swimmer-fiberglassHave you ever rolled around in the pink insalation used to insulate your attic in nothing but your bathing suit? Well, me neither, but I would imagine the itch and irritation that would follow such a ridiculously stupid act would only be about 20% of the death fire itch from hell Pica Pica in Puerto Rico can inflict upon you. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t prove what I am about to write, but I welcome input, contributions, corrections and personal experiences with Pica Pica in the comment section.

Let’s start out with a personal experience of mine to set the tone.

When we bought our property in Rincon, we had no idea the maintenance required to maintain our acreage. Actually, I didn’t consider yard maintenance at all. We were first time home buyers and I simply had my eyes on the prize: Home Ownership

My first summer down here was hot and full of mosquitos, but we had no power for fans at the house and we had tons of standing water all over the place. I focused 90% of my manual labor on the house and 10% on planting a few things close to the house. I didn’t worry about the rest of the property, or the vines strangling out all our junk trees. Well, ultimately that vine, that purportedly grows up to 12 inches a day, was Pica Pica.

Pica Pica vines and pods seemed harmless enough to me all summer. When I did walk through the vines or had to clean out an area with a machete, it never itched me so I wasn’t worried about it. I figured it was another hopped up wives tale like the chupacabra. That winter, after the rains stopped, things changed and I realized I was very wrong.

We started to get an idea what Pica Pica could do once the rains stopped and all the plants dried out. The green Pica Pica pods turned brown and then grey. All the little tiny green hairs were now dry, brittle and as fine as fiberglass. Since our house is situated in a valley, downwind from the trade winds, we get a wonderful breeze through the house everyday. Unfortunately, when there are hundreds of dried up Pica Pica pods upwind of your house, it’s not so wonderful.

Pica Pica Vine

Pica Pica Vine

Pica Pica hits it’s prime in March every winter. Months and months without rain dry everything out allowing the super light Pica Pica fibers to swirl around with the wind and land EVERYWHERE; in your car, chairs, laundry hanging out to dry, closets, hampers, all over sheets, beds, couches, bathing suits, socks, underwear, shoes. Pica Pica is EVERYWHERE.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the itch inflicted by the dustings of Pica Pica is annoying but very tolerable. You sit down and get a super itchy spot on your leg for a few minutes. You hop into bed and you start itching. All inconveniences, but tolerable. What isn’t tolerable is a direct hit of Pica Pica.

That first winter, before I knew the wrath of Pica Pica, I marched up to a small tree covered in Pica Pica vines and dried up pods with a machete, boots and boardshorts. No shirt. I only hit the tree 4 or 5 times before the fibers showered my sweaty skin and started itching so bad my mind stopped working…and it intensified for about 15 minutes longer before it started becoming manageable. In that time frame, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you my middle name or been able to drive a car. The burning itch seemed super natural. Worse than any poison ivy, green head bite or sea lice sting I had ever experienced.

Ok, so now you know why I have a strong dislike for Pica Pica. Ok, let’s get into some facts about Pica Pica. I’ll also post some more pictures of Pica Pica, the leaf, the flower and the pod that we have found on the property.

The scientific name for Pica pica is Mucuna. The course hairs on the pods contain the proteolytic enzyme mucunain which cause the itch and sometimes blisters. It is a climbing vine and will strangle out other plants if you let it. Pica pica is found all over the caribbean and areas with a similar tropical wet/dry season weather pattern. Believe it or not, it is also considered to have many medicinal values and is used in herbalism. When the fine hairs attach to you, the more you itch the more you spread them around and push them further into your skin. Did I mention that Pica pica is also the active ingredient in many itching powders?

How to stop Pica pica itch? Bad news. Nothing helps relieve the itch of Picapica that I am aware of, but for me hopping in the shower and FRANTICALLY soaping my body over and over provided temporarily relief. Eventually, like super spicy hot sauce, the itch drops a notch and eventually goes away completely leaving no trace of it’s existence on your body.

Based on my experience over the past few years, I recommend eradicating all of the picapica from your property in the rainy season when it isn’t itchy. This way, when winter comes there will be no pods to dry out and make your windy afternoons uncomfortable.

15 thoughts on “Pica Pica Translates to Itch Itch”

  1. Stefan, Thanks for the photos. It’s hard to find this info on the web. Now I can do the eradication thing too. That purple flower is a charmer, but it’s done for!

  2. Ahhhhh, sitting here drinking a microbeer, thinking how much I DON’T miss that freaking plant! I’ll take bears and mountain lions any day of the week. Cheers!

  3. Citing from the “trusted” Wikipedia site:

    The hairs lining the seed pods and the small spicules on the leaves contain 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) which cause severe itching (pruritus) when touched. The calyx below the flowers is also a source of itchy spicules and the stinging hairs on the outside of the seed pods are used in itching powder. Water should not be used if contact occurs, as it only dilutes the chemical. Also, one should avoid scratching the exposed area since this causes the hands to transfer the chemical to all other areas touched. Once this happens, one tends to scratch vigorously and uncontrollably and for this reason the local populace in northern Mozambique refer to the beans as the mad beans (feijões malucos). They use raw, unrefined moist tobacco to treat the itching. In India, the application of cow dung is very effective to treat the itching caused by the spicules of this herb.

  4. Pica Pica even comes in when your house is closed up for months…your towels, your shirts….chairs…I laid on our hammock and first it was ok…then I ran into the shower…my body was itching…then I came out to find Frank on the hammock and 2 minutes later he is running into the shower and yelling at me that I should I have told him…ok I did say it at loud but he was not listening…oh well… :)

  5. Well guys, I see what you mean. Luckily, you’ll be able to erradicate permanently. I remember a shop named “”Las Maldades”” (Pranks) in Mayaguez. They sold Pica Pica Itchy powder in a paper envelope. I think it has become illegal for obvious reasons. I loved the gorgeous lethal purple flower.

  6. Hi guys,

    My name is Vickie, husband is Mark. We met Frank & Rose up in Pineapple Hill while looking for some property to buy. They suggested we look you guys up. We too are from California and wanting to relocate to Rincon. Been here almost a month, leaving on Monday. We’d love to get together with some locals and talk about your experiences. Our cell is 951 201-6100. Give us a call, we’d love to meet you!

    Mark & Vickie Hendren

  7. We have a house up in the forest and make about 5 trips a year at present. My husband has been working on clearing some of the back lot. He doesn’t itch immediately. It takes about 2-3 days before the itching starts and the blisters follow. I didn’t think PR had poison ivy. Someone told us it could be pica-pica? He has been wearing protective clothing since the first episode which was the worst since he was wearing only board shorts and flip-flops but invariably gets something wrapped around his ankle or wrist and again the same scenario. It took him two weeks to get back to some kind of normal that first time. Developed a deep red itching rash with blisters and went through two boxes of Zyrtec and Benadryl. I kept telling him he needed a regiment of short term steroids but he managed to get through without it. Any ideas? Pica-pica or poison ivy, oak, or sumac?

  8. I moved to Puerto Rico from Pennsylvania 15 years ago and ohhhh what a mistake from Employment to no electric, no water for months at a time when a storm hits, to weeks at a time on regular weather, spent alot of $ to get over here and purchase a home, never knew that the police would be deliberatly blind to the drug dealers selling drugs on your side walk, the theft among everyone here is amazing how the theives even will steal your undergarments off of the washline, and if there is a crime in the nieghborhood or in your home yes you can phone for the police to come but be prepared to wait a few days for there arrival, and do not call an ambulance for an injury/ You can walk to the ER faster then the ambulance gets there. Example my son was in a car accident in Corozal and I was working in a hospital in vega baja, i got the call and they said that an ambukance was called ya know I got to the accident site about an hour before the ambulance. My husband had an accident at work and was found unconciuose on the ground, ambukance was called and since one of puerto ricos famouse boxers had flown back to pr after the fight his caravan on the road did not let the ambulance through when they got to him he was Dead. And that was at 1:00 pm the coroner arrived at 12:30 am why did it take 11 and 1/2 hours?Funny the low wages in PR, Icould not go back to Penna, So what a mistake moving here!

  9. In response to Denise – the blisters and red rash sounds more like fire ants than any plant I’ve met here in my 20 years on La Isla. Flip-flops are not to be used outdoors unless you’re on the beach. The best thing for fire ants I’ve found is to wash the area where you got bitten and then apply Benadryl cream. Noxema helps the itch. Then you mix up some bacon grease and boric acid and take it to the ants as a “peace offering”. Be sure to enclose the offering in something like an empty soda can so that weather and wandering dogs and cats can’t get into it. Don’t worry, the ants will find it, they know it is for them.

  10. My wife and I have a finca in Patillas Marin Alto, and we also have Pica Pica but it looks totally different then what I see in your pictures.This is more like a bush with small thorns on the stems and the leafs are quite large with hire like thorns on them.But just like you said don’t get it on your skin it is like fire and takes days to go away.We don’t have to worry much about it blowing around it dose not get that dry up here in the mountains.I will keep a look out for the type of Pica Pica you are showing though.

  11. WOW…Thank you for all that useful information. Today I was at the Cerrillo Lake in Ponce. I just went for picture taking..(Birds, flowers, insects, nature in general)..All of a sudden I noticed those funny pods, which I DID photograph..still not knowing what they were. Suddenly it occurred to me..”could these be that infamous Pica Pica, I’ve been hearing about so many years? I’ve been living in PR for a little over 40 years, but have never seen these pods before…Luckily I decided to post the pic on Facebook and ask the experts…Too bad….it would make a nice ornamental plant…LOL

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