Archive for August, 2010

Poison Ivy

Okay, enough with the European transplants. This week I feature one of those surprisingly durable North American plants that survived the transition from forest to suburban landscape to cityscape. When you come across a patch of Poison Ivy in your neighborhood, feel free to congratulate it on sticking it out as our urban neighbor for all those decades; apparently all it takes is the ability to generate fist-sized blisters on human skin.

Poison Ivy, which bears the ominous scientific name Toxicodendron radicans, likes living on the edge. It thrives in those thin waste spaces between scraps of forest and development, places where it doesn’t get too much shade. In effect, it lurks.

How can you identify this plant? There are plenty of catchy mnemonic devices about Poison Ivy, from the well-known “Leaves of three, let it be” (a good general rule, except that about a zillion other plants have three leaves) to other more creative and often less accurate rhymes. To me, the best way to identify it is to look at lots of pictures until you have a good general idea. Poison Ivy sometimes has red leaves and sometimes not, sometimes hairy leaves sometimes not, sometimes jaggety leaves and sometimes not. Also, in the fall and winter it’s reduced to a stick that is covered in deceptively adorable white berries.

Here are some things that you should not do with Poison Ivy:

  • Set fire to a pile of it, and then inhale the fumes.
  • Liquefy a large vine with a chainsaw.
  • Let your pooch run through it and straight into your loving arms.
  • Use your 5-iron to knock your golf ball out of it, and then touch your golf ball.
  • Scamper about in it one moonless evening with that cute guy from your baking class.
  • Touch anything that has touched it.
  • Look at it the wrong way.
  • Say its name three times into a mirror on the solstice.

Poison Ivy exists in a remarkable balance; it’s just offensive enough to protect itself, and just tenacious enough that we can’t seem to get rid of it. Unlike other threatening lifeforms that we eliminated from many of our towns (like rattlesnakes), it persists, a subtle reminder that the natural world isn’t all daisies and roses.


August 10, 2010 at 1:25 am 3 comments

Queen Anne’s Lace

If you drive on virtually any highway in the Northeast right now, you’ll see the flowers of this plant swarming in the waste places along the side of the road, crowding right up to the edge of the highway as if they’re teenage fans and you’re a 19-year-old music star with a baby face and hair like a lion’s mane. This is yet another Old World plant that has become very common in North America.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is also known as Wild Carrot. The big orange carrot that we eat in salads belongs to the same species, and it likely originated from the selective breeding of an especially palatable subspecies of Daucus carota that was found in Afghanistan. We decry it as a weed in one context, and then pay money for its julienned cousin in another context — it’s a good thing plants can’t chuckle.

The name Queen Anne’s Lace is particular to North America. The flower looks an awful lot like lace, and there is a little red bloom in the center that colonial folks thought looked like blood — the story goes that Queen Anne pricked her finger while she was sewing the lace, and a drop of blood landed in the middle of her doily. I don’t know why Queen Anne in particular gets picked on here. She was definitely a fiery character, but I don’t think her lace sewing was anything to crow about.

Look for the lacy white flowers in fields and waste places, and dig up the young root for a little carroty snack. Better yet, affix it to your lapel; you’ll smell like a fresh garden salad, and you can challenge your date to lean in real close and find the one red bloom.

August 5, 2010 at 1:27 am 3 comments


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