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365 Urban species. #281: Poison Ivy

Photos by urbpan. Location: Egremont road, Brighton.

Urban species #281: Poison ivy Toxicodendron radicans

The most beautiful fall colors, in my opinion, are expressed by a plant that I usually take pains to avoid. Poison ivy, famous for causing itchy blistery rashes on the skin of those who are sensitive to it, turns yellow, scarlet, and pink. It climbs dead and live trees, chain-link fences and cement walls, putting attractive foliage high in what would otherwise be blank spaces. Along with Virginia creeper and sumac, poison ivy is the best non-tree foliage in the autumn.

In the summer, however, it's hard for most of us to think well of it. The woody stems and shiny leaves are full of an oily toxic substance that about half of the human population reacts to. The blisters don't rise immediately, appearing instead hours, days, or even weeks later. The oil can be brushed off of damaged leaves onto clothes or the fur of your dog, to react on your skin later. Relief from the itch is hard to come by, though prescribed steroids cleared up a severe case I had recently (near the eyes). The traditional home remedy is calamine lotion, a pasty pink concoction that serves to make the sufferer look as leprous as he feels. Others have had success in treating poison ivy rashes with jewelweed juice. These days I take loratadine (generic Claritin) an antihistamine that I take for ragweed-related symptoms anyway, and that seems to keep the worst of the poison ivy dermatitis at bay.

Poison ivy is a perennial vine, native to North America, that aggressively invades open spaces in wooded areas. Its fruit is a white berry that is an important winter food source for many bird species. Birds then defecate the poison ivy seeds, which can germinate in a variety of habitats, including wetlands and disturbed sites in urban areas. Humans appear to be the only animals that suffer from poison ivy dermatitis, and rabbits and deer will browse on its fresh spring leaves. There are several related Toxicodendrons throughout North America, whose taxonomic names seem to be in flux, but are commonly known as poison oak (more shrublike) and poison sumac (resembling sumac, but with white berries).

Poison ivy is the nicer of the decorations in this Brighton maple tree.

Early in June, it looks so innocent. By the way, "leaves of three, leave it be!" Location: Olmsted Park, Boston.

On the ground it forms dense mats. Location: Ringer playground, Allston.

On trees it can be quite dense as well. Location: on a black locust tree in an alley near Glenville Ave. in Allston.

In the winter, the hairy attachments it uses to bind thick stems to surfaces become visible. (Olmsted Park)

Thick poison ivy stems on trees in winter are sometimes called "monkey tails."


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2006 11:20 pm (UTC)
So that's what it looks like! On our semi-recent camping trip up north, one of the dog's leashes got completely smeared with poison ivy oil, leading me to have a rash over a large portion of my hand, particularly between my fingers and along my wrist.

That stuff is agonizing. Benadryl helped some, but in general, it was terrible. Particularly a few thousand miles from home.
Oct. 11th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC)
"clearly cala-gel" and the sister cleansing product work wonders on this scourge... also generally good on bug bites too. i swear by it :)

Oct. 10th, 2007 09:50 pm (UTC)
I prefer Technu.
Oct. 11th, 2007 01:20 am (UTC)
Oct. 11th, 2006 01:22 am (UTC)
This plant has such a bad reputation (and it is extremely nasty to get rid of it as I found out a couple years ago), but I do point out to my kids how pretty the leaves are in Fall. Good news is, we all recognize it and so manage to steer clear of it! My wife and I taught our kids to recognize it at a very early age! :)
Oct. 11th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
My hubby's former housemate pulled out some poison ivy in her backyard (not knowing what it was) and ended up getting it internally. Very bad scene....
Oct. 11th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
And my brother, many years ago, burned some for people he was doing yard work for, inhaled some of the smoke, and swelled up like elephant man for a week or two afterwards.

It is the one plant that I regularly use poison on, and even then it is a constant battle, what with the seeds being spread by birds,
the plants not completely dying from their toxic treatments.

I have developed a kind of folk theory on where poison ivy
grows. If there's a place where people (ever) pee, there you will
find it; it's a kind of chafing where civilization borders nature.

Oct. 11th, 2006 04:00 am (UTC)
I posted this for a friend who had a run-in with poison ivy this year. I found it on a cereal website: "The mango is a member of the sumac family, along with cashews, poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac. In some rare cases, if you are very sensitive to any of the above, mango could also cause an allergic reaction."
Oct. 11th, 2006 05:25 am (UTC)
Leaves of three, let it be.

What am I missing? Why don't I see it? I know it's there.


Oct. 11th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC)
I, too, used to be plagued with a poison ivy allergy. I could seriously walk by it and it's pollens (or something) would be enough to start a reaction. My entire face would explode: one time my face was so inflamed that my nose was hardly visible. Another time, the poison ivy sealed my eyes shut. I was given prednisone as a treatment, but I soon learned that I had an allergic reaction to that, as well. Geesh. Now, though, I haven't suffered from Poison Ivy in ages.
Oct. 11th, 2006 02:43 pm (UTC)
The poison ivy sure decorates that maple better than the pair of shoes.

The first photo is really pretty with the light coming from behind the leaves. I hardly recognized it. I guess I always think of poison ivy the way it looks in June.

I am forever learning from these posts! Thank you.
Oct. 11th, 2006 02:51 pm (UTC)
Despite tromping around prime habitat for most of my life, I've never yet had a poison ivy reaction. I always assumed it was because my parents trained me to me careful. I didn't realize that as many as 50% if people were safe, though. (Of course, my anecdotal understanding is that no-one's ever safe, and it's not until on is convinced that they're immune and goes rolling in it to show off that the reaction appears for the first time...)
Oct. 11th, 2006 10:01 pm (UTC)
I'd heard that you actually develop an allergy to the stuff over time. So the first few times you are exposed to it you won't have a reaction, and then after that you start to have reactions. Essentially a reverse tolerance...

I've only gotten a rash once, and I put lavender oil on it (noted for having great skin healing properties) and the itching stopped very quickly and the rash healed in a couple of days.
Oct. 10th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
I always remember "3, Green, P's"
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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