Thursday, November 17, 2011

POISON IVY - A misunderstood plant!

I am always amazed how so many people – even avid outdoors people do not really know what poison ivy looks like. Everyone knows of the name but so few actually can readily recognize PI (that’s poison ivy) in its many forms and permutations. Yes, indeed, poison ivy is quite variable in its appearance. It can be a streamlined vine gently creeping up a tree or a thick hairy beast of a vine that takes over the entire understory of a tree with vinelets reaching out 5 or more feet from the trunk. Poison ivy can be a large spreading ground bush that can be 3 feet tall or just little twigs of a plant that is no more than 3 inches tall yet carpets an entire field. The leaves of poison ivy can be tiny waxy red new leaves in early spring, shiny fresh green in late spring, a dull dusty green in late summer, or a bright cheery red, orange and yellow in the fall. The leaf shape can also be small and toothed (less than an inch) or large, rounded and subtley lobed at 5 inches or more in size.

So, the old adage of “leaves of 3, leave it be” definitely simplifies the identification of poison ivy a bit and IS indeed a great place to start, but there is so much to consider with PI. Let’s look at some pictures…

No…this isn’t it! Sorry – wrong Google image.

Here you go…

The vine…

The classic hairy vine...

Spring PI...

Summer poison ivy...

Fall PI...

Fall is by far the best time of year to really see how prevalent Poison Ivy is in our area. It currently is a stunningly beautiful red, orange and yellow foliage that is either running up along many a tree in the forest (check out the Merritt parkway this week and you will know what I mean – all that amazing color along the lower and upper trunks of trees is none other than our beloved Poison Ivy) or spread like a ruby red carpet across most fields under all of the browning goldenrod and Joe Pye weed.

How can something so beautiful be able to cause so much anguish?? I write that and then think of a rose with its thorns, a snow storm, a grizzly bear and even a loving marriage so scratch that question. This paradox riddles our world. What also riddles our world are ways of minimizing said anguish. Creation has a way of providing a solution when you are wanting it.

Back to poison ivy…there are plants that you can often find growing right next to or near poison ivy. In our area, Jewelweed or touch-me-not plant, found in the fields and moist forest edges, is one of the most common plants. It has a succulent type stalk that when crushed, becomes quite juicy. Here are a few pictures of this plant.

To use Jewelweed, you can crush the plant immediately after you come into contact with poison ivy and rub the area with the juicy crushed plant parts as well as use it as a salve for existing poison ivy rash. Or, as shown below, you can actually cook it into a concentrated concoction and use that as salve.

Of course, there are other over the counter products that can be used to wash off PI like Tecnu and things to help alleviate the itch and rash one gets from PI. I have always found that the natural remedies work just as well on mild to moderate cases of poison ivy. This guy however is pretty much in major trouble…OUCH!

In nature, everything has a purpose, value and interrelation with everything else. Question is, what value does poison ivy have? Well, to humans – us naked apes - it is indeed an issue and the value is not particularly high. PI can help reduce erosion for sandy soils and is used as such at times. Also, some experienced herbalists use PI medicinally (this I would not recommend to experiment with). However, to other wildlife, poison ivy indeed is important. As I mentioned earlier, poison ivy is really only a problem for us naked apes. Deer and other animals will eat the leaves (though not in huge amounts). Many birds, mice and squirrels will eat the berries and seeds through late fall and into winter. It is an important food source helping these animals survive the long winter months. Goats in particular can consume large quantities of it so if you’ve got PI – get a goat!

And sometimes, even though we (us naked apes) don't have a clear idea on some purpose for something in nature (i.e. those nuisance plants like poison ivy or insects like mosquitoes), it doesn't mean that they don't have an important role.

In the end, poison ivy has its place in our natural world, like it or not. What we can do to avoid the unpleasantness of contracting a PI rash is arm yourself with the knowledge of what it looks like in all seasons. As an educator and naturalist, I also see poison ivy as a great reason to look up from the ground (most of us walk looking down at our feet even when out in nature) and enjoy ALL the splendor of the natural world. In time, you can train yourself to spot poison ivy from quite far away. I am now unable to NOT find poison ivy whenever it is around, always having an eye open for those leaves of three! Now go out there and enjoy some nature!

Remember, you can always get a goat (even rent one) to help out too! ;)

Happy trails...

Keith Marshall
Director of Education for the New Canaan Nature Center

1 comment:

  1. good article and a very misunderstood plant. like you, this stuff shows up like a neon sign to me. being an allergic arborist, i have to watch out for it.
    1) stay away from hairy vines
    2) leaves of three, let them be
    3) stay sway from any vine with limbs (branchlets), that grow horizontally off of the vine. when PI is leafless, the hairy vine and the branchlets are often your only indicators.
    4) Dont run around the woods just touching things. Look hard before you touch.
    5) DIRT. If you get into Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, or Poison Sumac, grab some loamy dirt, and rub it all over your hands and forearms (or wherever you were infected) . It will draw out the concentrated Urushiol (OIL). Rinse off and do it again. Now when you wash with soap and water you'll be fighting a winning battle. Imagine it like this people: try washing ground-in motor oil off your hands with just soap and water. It'll take awhile. Urushiol works the same way. Draw it out before you clean. You can buy whatever ointment or lotion you want, but dirt is always around...