Poison Ivy

August 10, 2010 at 1:25 am 3 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Herbaceous plants.

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