root cellar

Poison ivy in December

A cautionary tale

By KRISTIN BARRON
Posted 1/20/21

December does not generally bring to mind the maddening itch of the poison ivy plant. But never say never, as my husband, John, learned this past month after developing a poison ivy rash. It …

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root cellar

Poison ivy in December

A cautionary tale

Posted

December does not generally bring to mind the maddening itch of the poison ivy plant. But never say never, as my husband, John, learned this past month after developing a poison ivy rash. It developed after he attempted to trim the branches of an old tree that had fallen into our lawn during the Christmas Eve rain and windstorm along the Upper Delaware.

We admired that old, weathered tree every fall; the leaves on the hairy vine, which crept up the trunk, were some of the season’s first to turn red. The leaves are beautiful, but we admired them from a distance, knowing full-well their deception.

“Leaves of three, leave them be,” is the old saying meant to help Boy Scouts and the rest of us identify poison ivy. The best strategy is to learn to identify the shifty vine and, thereby, avoid encountering it. But in winter, without the vine’s characteristic three green leaflets, it is easy to be comforted by a false sense of safety. You might think the Medusa-like vines are deadened, right? Wrong.

Then again, John just wanted that tree gone and impatiently set out to tackle the job by himself. Something about the old trunk irked him. “It’s sort of like the exact opposite of those weird, stainless steel monoliths that have been popping up mysteriously across the nation,” he said.

So, despite being the survivor of numerous childhood run-ins with the sneaky plant, and regardless of his cautionary efforts while trying to saw and remove the fallen trunk (including two pairs of gloves and goggles), John still got an itchy, red, blistering rash on his wrists and hip. Pandemic notwithstanding, this required a special trip to Walgreens for an ocean of Calamine lotion, as the song goes. The usual and everyday aches, pains and misery continue to go on in the world.

“I should have known better,” John says, “We built that infamous ‘all-natural’ fort when I was in 6th grade, using vines to hold it together. We were inspired by ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ Turns out the roots we used to construct the fort were mostly from poison ivy. We got huge cases and all had to go to the doctor.”

But give the poor guy a break. Poison ivy, it turns out, is an all-season, shape-shifting menace. The entire poison ivy plant (roots, stems and all) contains an oily juice called urushiol which, on contact, causes the allergic reaction that produces the itchy and sometimes painful rash. The plant may grow as a vine or as a scrubby, low ground cover.

New leaves in the spring start out red and shiny with rounded tips. In the summer, as they mature, the leaves turn green and develop a pointed tip. Flowers are white and grow in clusters close to the vine. In fall, the leaves turn spectacular shades of red and orange. They are appealing to leaf collectors, but beware—the leaves will still produce a rash. White berries appear in early fall and are a favorite food of birds. In winter, the hairy vine is the most noticeable sign of the plant. This winter form prompts another popular rhyme: “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.”

John says his New Year’s resolution is “to not do dumb things.” As a community service, he says he hopes we all learn from this cautionary tale, including himself.

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