Friday, October 7, 2011


Viewed dispassionately, poison ivy is nice-looking stuff. All summer its shiny-leaved vines trail along roads, up trees, and through the underbrush, the picture of prosperity and well-being. In fall its dark green leaves shade into red and gold while retaining their characteristic thriving and healthy aspect. You rarely see poison ivy looking ragged and run-down. It doesn't, as you might expect, maintain its health and vigor by poisoning any creature that tries to eat or otherwise interfere with it. Only humans are bothered by it; birds perch on it, presumably looking for bugs, and deer eat it.

William Cullina, in Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines (to whom I am indebted for all the specific information in this piece) concedes, rather grudgingly, that poison ivy and its relatives are attractive in autumn. He goes on to relate with incredulous disgust that since 1640 poison ivy has actually been cultivated in some English gardens for its fall color. It's understandable that a naturalist, who comes into close and sometimes regrettable contact with his objects of study, might be no fan of the toxicodendron genus.

One summer I did see poison ivy that looked discouraged, yellowing in the August drought. I had to wonder if it had been sprayed to spare humans the dire consequences of messing with it -- and decided probably not. The yellowing vines extended too far along the road, across too many town lines. And anyway, killing poison ivy and leaving it in place doesn't stop its nefarious activities. You can get poison ivy in January from dead stems masquerading as random sticks. Cullina reports that "the toxin is extremely decay resistant, and a sensitive person came down with a rash after handling a 200-year-old herbarium specimen!"

But the stuff does make an impressive display. One has to admire, from a safe distance, the effect of those red and gold vines trailing along an old gray stone wall in bright sunlight under a blue October sky.