California to Puerto Rico

Pica Pica Translates to Itch Itch

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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.


19 thoughts on “Pica Pica Translates to Itch Itch

  1. Wil

    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. Stefan

    Wil – I’ve been meaning to post about Pica pica for a while now. The pictures really help out figuring out which vine is the EVIL one.

  3. Buckeye Jim

    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!

  4. Eli Rios

    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.

  5. Rosa

    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… 🙂

  6. Ruth Thorne

    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.

  7. Vickie Hendren

    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

  8. Denise

    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?

  9. Esther Torres

    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!

  10. 2much

    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.

  11. Rick Foley

    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.

  12. Efrain Velazquez

    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

  13. JULZ

    So after reading your wonderful article with my boyfriend and rolling around the floor laughing, but NOT at you but with you. We have been coming to an from the Rincon area for 4 years now and generally we’d rent a vacation rental for 2 weeks and come home and that was that. Then we got smart and found a great 2 bedroom cute little cottage up the mountain for 300 a mth x 12 = 3600.00 it included utilities too and split it with another couple making it more affordable 1300.00 making it 600 bux cheaper than renting the vacation rental for 2 weeks 1800.00 and having it year round at our disposal. BUT<—- Yep that's a BIG ONE! LOL! We never had been to Rincon in the dry season only during Holiday season (WAVE season) But figured out Jan -April waves are just as big. Anyhow, after arriving from the flight from hell, as usual, even though its only 2 1/2 hours from Fla. You don't sleep for an entire day, #1 you don't want to miss your flight cuz you gotta leave home around 7pm to get to airport and #2 the flight leaves at 11:30 pm It sucks arriving at 3am then getting rental car then getting to Rincon area and in the house after cars unloaded and your looking at 5:30am and just wanting to catch some zzzz before the fun time happens. You get the travel dirt off and generally a lot of places don't have a.c. just fans and since we only have fans we left our house windows cracked to keep the house somewhat aired out while we weren't there. So jumping in the bed with our damp clean bodies we are ready for some sleep. All of sudden I hear my boyfriend scratching and this is shaking the bed but I figured it'd stop soon it was only an itch! WRONG! Then I started, then he starts complaining he is itchy and scratchy and I reply, "me too"?? Maybe the sheets were washed with a cheap detergent or the soap was bad. or the shampoo??? All these questions running through our heads. But in the meantime I am totally scratching myself raw!!!! WE CAN"T TAKE IT ANY LONGER! We jump in the shower AGAIN and this time we don't use the soap or shampoo just in case(THANK GOD WE DIDN"T the soap was in dish opened and PICA- pica landed on it too I am sure. I got fresh soap and sheets I had bought with us to add to the supplies in the house. Well we thought it was over. We got dried off and in the sheets again. Once again we started itching! Well remember I said we dried off? Yeah well it was not with the towels we brought but the towels in the bathroom that were clean and folded by me the last time we were there, so by now I have figured it wasn't a soap issue. We ONCE again jumped in the shower and rinsed off and now our skin is red and a raw! By now its like 9 am and we are pretty much over trying to rest before our daily adventure because if we fell asleep we'd definitely lose an entire day sleeping it away. So as we sat and tried to figure out a plan, my boyfriend being a guy surfer, puts on his baggies, surfers live in them and really don't need a wardrobe change. As for me, I have to plan. So as we are trying to decide what the itinerary is going to be, I am sitting in my towel at the dinning room table waiting to see if its a beach day or site seeing day so I can dress appropriately. Well guess what??? Our chairs at the "Mango House" were fabric covered and wouldn't you know it, I was doing the "Hell FIRE coochy dance", looking like a crazy person!! Yep! It got me in the most sensitive area of my body!!! I barreled into the shower and swore I wasn't touching another thing in that house til we got to the bottom of it. (And I thought I already did! LOL!) Any how I took anything that was fabric and went downtown and washed it ALL! Anything I knew that didn't have the mysterious itching powder on it went to my suitcases even the pillows. We had bought some huge Tupperware crates and put all the clean comforters, sheets and anything else in them EVERYDAY when we got up to take no chances. Well after 2 days of hiding our stuff we finally seen our landlord and asked What the heck are we itching from, did he put some kind of spray in the house for termites or bug or even the rats?(YES, there are critters in Puerto Rico. Your in the tropics so don't expect a lizard, tarantula, Chihuahua sized rats that fight back, and now a PICA-PICA free ZONE. We got similar issue in Florida. We had no clue. LOL! So are landlord informed us its PICA-Pica season and apparently neighbors just burned a bunch of it. He has a.c. so he really wasn't affected by it. So when we left we bought MORE crates and closed ALL our windows air tight. We now have our own property in the Rincon area and its high up in the mountains. It's a Vacation Rental property and we Americanized it to keep our patrons feel at home and having the luxuries as if they were home. HOT water heaters(NO CRAZY PLUG YOUR WATER HEATER INTO AN OUTLET 2 ft. or less from shower head??? Um last time I checked, that doesn't mix. But It works. but it's scary to me so we got hot water heaters for our guests and ac units to keep out the pests and pica-pica. And god knows what else. I don't live here year round so I don't know what to quite expect through the next year. I have been there at least once a mth to work on the place. And haven't had any PICA-PICA issues yet. Just because I haven't seen this plant on my property doesn't mean I wont ever feel the wrath again. Remember my old landlord said the neighbor was burning it? Well apparently this stuff is so light it carries in the air with the direction of the smoke. So when you see smoke, you may see the HELL FIRE ITCH! Also I giggled when I heard the chupacabbra comment. I swear the 1st time I stayed at the new place I was awakened that morning by a strange unfamiliar wail! It was a cross between a Air horn and a dying cow! Well it WAS a cow! LOL! I don't know if cows in P.R. moo in Spanish and that is what it comes out like our the 2 cows next door are just weir but I now tell our guests we have our very own bonified chupacabbra's for a morning wake up call. LOL! Thanks for the laughs and information about PICA-Pica for gringos like me this has been very informational and I now can know what I am looking for next week when I go back. I've been trying to ask local people but the language barrier is a bit tough when I ask what it looks like. I usually get sign language for itchy. I think they think I am asking what it is and not what it looks like. THANKS and MAhalo. JULZ from "La Casa De La Coqui"

  14. Richard Reich

    Good ol Pica Pica!
    Friends of mine and myself decided to hit Culebra for several days when we were staying in Rincon for the winter. We had got there in early Dec and it was end of February and we were up for a road trip and adventure. Well we got one thanks to Pica Pica. Apparently it’s on Culebra also because we were at Flemenco Beach camping and were hanging our clothes and towels and it was all over everything. In our tent, on our shirts and shorts underware you name it. It was a long few days out there because it was quite windy from different directions so there wasn’t much you could do. Just kept drinking 151 and swimming every 30 minutes. And the sand is so fine there we would scrub w it and that helped big time. Embrace the Pica Pica. Enjoy!

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