It is unlikely you will acquire this Bougainvillea bonsai pathogen. HOWEVER, because Bougainvillea are frequently air layered to make several plants from one, it is something you should be aware of.
The most conventional way to air layer is to use sphagnum moss. As you work with the plant, thorns may puncture the skin.
The sphagnum moss often carries a fungi known as Sporothrix schenckii that can enter wounds. Thorns and sphagnum moss can be a treacherous combination.
Mike Cartrett and Bob Horvath are two Florida bonsai growers who can both tell you just how bad it can be!
In addition to air layers, Mike and Bob have both collected old Bougainvillea plants as bonsai subjects. (Urban Yamadori)
Old plants in nature are often overgrown and difficult to "tame." In the process, it's not unusual to be stuck a few times!
Mike Cartrett noticed that one of those punctures was not healing as usual. The first doctor Mike visited treated the problem as a bacterial infection. This is a common mistake.
The wound did not heal. It progressed from a simple nodule to a deep hole within two months.
After several more doctor visits, Mike found a tropical disease specialist, who diagnosed sporotrichosis.
Treatment is a long term process, often 200 days or more.
When I last asked Mike, he told me he still feels "tingles" where his arm was infected with this Bougainvillea bonsai pathogen.
Some time later Bob Horvath had a similar experience ... again working with Bougainvillea bonsai.
Because of Mike's experience, Bob suggested to his doctor what the problem may be. Yes, it was also sporotrichosis.
According to the Center for Disease Control … “ The first symptom is usually a small painless bump resembling an insect bite.
It can be red, pink, or purple in color. The bump (nodule) usually appears on the finger, hand, or arm where the fungus first enters through a break on the skin. This is followed by one or more additional bumps or nodules which open and may resemble boils. Eventually lesions look like open sores (ulcerations) and are very slow to heal."
(I chose not to use the Bougainvillea bonsai pathogen photos on this page, however, you may find them at several locations on the internet.)
Overall, it is not a common problem. However, over the years, many nursery workers throughout the country have been affected. Especially at risk are those who handle sphagnum moss.
Bougainvillea bonsai or not -- if you import any bonsai plants with roots wrapped in sphagnum, wear gloves and long sleeves while unpacking. Make sure any helpers do also.
Many years ago, several employees in the topiary department at Disney, Orlando contracted this Sporothrix schenckii fungus. Today better precautions are taken.
Bougainvillea thorns are not the only ones that can open the skin to this fungus and sphagnum is not the only carrier. Another name for this problem is the the "rose gardener's disease."
This fungus shows little evidence of self-healing if left untreated and relapse is common. The most important step in preventing sporotrichosis is preventing the spores from entering the skin in the first place.
(It does not spread from person to person.)
Although the incidents mentioned on this page refer to Florida, Florida is not the most likely state for this problem. If you think you may have contracted this Bougainvillea bonsai pathogen, it is important to have it identified and treated immediately.
If you are suspicious, do as Bob did -- suggest what you think it may be to your doctor - and give him/her your reasons why.
Is it serious? Yes.