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Roy Lukes: Poison Ivy

Editor’s note: While Roy Lukes died at the age of 86 on June 26, his nature columns will continue to live on in the Pulse with the help of Roy’s wife, Charlotte, who has agreed to continue providing work from Roy’s extensive archives. For that reason, the column will include both their names.

An interesting topic I frequently discuss with people on the trail, simply to strengthen their understanding of plants, animals and their interrelationships is, “What plant or animal in your opinion is of no value on this planet?”

Two common answers are the mosquito and poison ivy. Examine the food chains of many small fish, dragonflies and birds and you will realize how important a food item mosquitos are to them. Consider, too, that one of our native wild orchids, the blunt-leaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata, formerly Habenaria obtusata) depends mostly on only one species of mosquito for the transfer of pollen.

Nearly everyone nods their head in agreement over the choice of poison ivy. It’s nothing but a green plague, obnoxious and to be avoided by all mankind. But what about wild animals? Do they benefit from this widespread “curse?” The answer is yes! Approximately 60 species of birds eat the small, round, hard whitish fruits.

Poison ivy leaves blend in with all the other summer green plants by July.

Poison ivy leaves blend in with all the other summer green plants by July.

Emergency food is vital to wildlife, especially in winter when birds such as the downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee and ruby-crowned kinglet consume the fruit. In fact, you might blame the spread of poison ivy to your property on birds for it is very likely the seeds have been scattered in their droppings.

More important is realizing that poison ivy is abundant, widespread and here to stay. We might as well learn to unmistakably identify it and avoid it. Consider the saying, “Leaflets three, let it be; berries white, hide from sight.” This is perfectly true. Poison ivy does not have three leaves; it has compound leaves each having three leaflets. There’s a difference.

The great majority of plants in our region are small erect shrubs or leafy shoots stemming from nodes situated on creeping rootstalks. I have seen poison ivy growing as vines with aerial shoots 30 feet and higher in trees in southern Wisconsin. In other words, its manner of growth and even leaf characteristics can be quite variable.

Charlotte and I were amazed to see this troublesome plant climbing 50 feet and higher into trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Also interesting was to see vines of Virginia creeper, or woodbine, growing on the same tree. Some people tend to confuse the two plants. The Virginia creeper has five leaflets, rather than three, branching from the leaf stalk.

Carefully study the poison ivy plant so recognition comes quickly and easily. Especially help your children become familiar with this “plant-to-be-avoided.” The three leaflets of the compound leaf frequently droop slightly downward and generally the middle leaflet grows on a slightly longer stem than the ones on either side.

The fruit of poison ivy is a cluster of green berries that change to white by autumn.

The fruit of poison ivy is a cluster of green berries that change to white by autumn.

The leaflets have very distinct, slightly depressed veins giving the foliage a somewhat quilted appearance. Early spring finds the young leaves a deep shiny maroon or purplish color. In summer they are green and blend in well with other plants. By autumn they have turned to brilliant shades of red, yellow or orange. Woe be unto the person who accidentally picks a bouquet for a table centerpiece. It has happened!

Foliage can vary in shape, size, luster and color depending on available light, soil and moisture. The edge of each leaflet may have only one notch or many.

Most of the older plants have just finished flowering and will soon be followed by the small, one-fifth-inch, round fruits that start out green and turn white as they ripen. Migratory birds, including the common flicker, catbird, brown thrasher and white-throated sparrow, will consume many of these fruits this fall.

It is said that the oil, urushiol, a yellowish slightly volatile substance, is the liquid in poison ivy that brings about severe inflammation and blistering to many people each year. The oil is located in all parts of the plant except the wood, pollen grains and leaf hairs.

Tests strongly indicate that one must come into direct contact with the poisonous juice in order to get the dreaded, unrelenting skin aliment. However, this direct contact may be achieved by petting your dog, taking off your shoes or cleaning garden tools, all of which may have bruised the poison ivy leaves.

One of the most unsuspecting ways to get the very worst case is by being exposed to smoke from a bonfire that was fueled with brush containing the poison ivy stalks or vines.

A wide range of professional and amateur beliefs and remedies exist when it comes to treating the blisters. Washing the exposed parts of your body with a soap containing an excess of alkali, such as Fels Naptha, before or as soon after contact as possible, can help dissolve and clean away the toxic oil. Do not use soaps that have oil in them because the poison is soluble in oil and will spread easily to other parts of your body. Prompt treatment by a doctor is your best bet. Better still is to learn to recognize the plant and avoid it!

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