Poison Ivy

Poison ivy, poison ivy
Late at night while you’re sleepin’
Poison ivy comes creepin’, around

Measles make you bumpy
And mumps’ll make you lumpy
And chicken pox’ll make you jump and twitch

A common cold’ll fool ya
And whooping cough can cool ya
But poison ivy, Lord’ll make you itch

– The Coasters

Despite the strong sexual metaphors, the last line is a true one, to anyone who’s ever been exposed to poison ivy.

When I was a kid, I used to handle poison ivy with impunity.  When everyone else was afraid to get close to it, I reveled in the fact that I was immune to urushiol.

Then came that one time. I was fishing along a slow moving, chocolate colored Louisiana bayou. The day was still a little cool (what we here along the coast call cool which, as you know, is anything below 80 F.) Insects were buzzing, a slight  breeze rustled the bald cypress needles just coming out of their winter nap, and white, shape-shifting clouds scudded through the almost violet spring  sky.

You know where I’m going with this. I leaned back against a large live oak and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the sun was going down. I didn’t catch any fish that day. By the time I reached home, though, I had caught something else.  An inescapable itching crept along my neck, and down both arms.  Welts began to appear. Voila. My immunity had disappeared.

So it is with urushiol.  A person may go for years being immune to it and then become allergic to it. Conversely, a person can be allergic to it in the past and then becomes immune to it.

Urushiol is found not only in poison ivy, but also in poison oak and poison sumac.  Their Genus name (Toxicodendron), means “poisonous vine”. Two of the three (poison ivy and poison oak) are prevalent along the Gulf coast. As for poison sumac, there are various interpretations of its range. Several descriptions put it east of the Mississippi, while others place it solidly all along the coast.

There are other members of the family, some which may surprise you. Cashews, mangos, smoke trees, marula and several others are included. All have varying levels of urushiol.

Poison ivy (and its brothers) are taking to warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide like pigs take to slop. Their leaves are growing bigger. I’ve seen some poison ivy in Texas with leaves as big as my hand, and there are reports that some can get as large as a pie pan. Not only is the plant getting bigger, the urushiol is getting more potent.

The moral, I suppose is, if you’re going to get out in the garden, learn to recognize these plants. There’s plenty of information on the internet about them. Experts will tell you that If you’re working where one of these three brothers are living, wear long trousers and long-sleeve shirts. And gloves.

Of course, we who live along the Gulf Coast are aware that all that advice is given by people who live in cooler climes. For most of us, t-shirts and blue jeans tend to be more appropriate. Gloves are not a bad idea though.

If you must get rid of it, put it in the garbage, not in green waste or your compost pile. Don’t burn it. The urushiol. The fumes can carry urushiol and you can inhale it. If you think it’s uncomfortable on your arm, think what it would be like inside your body.


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