The Heck Is Even With Poison Ivy: An Investigation


My love was working in the yard. I wasn’t. We have a well-agreed-upon divide of household chores. My love gardens, while I bring in all the groceries in one trip and offer to run back to the store for the butter we forgot. Anyway, my love encountered what we believed to be poison ivy.

That was natural enough. There’s been poison ivy in the yard before. We got rid of as much as we could last year in an expedition that brought us into the neighbor’s yard. A lot of ivy was growing through the fence. Somehow our neighbor was willing to accept our offer to dig a noxious weed out of his yard for free. It takes all kinds to make a neighborhood Most of that kind are neighbors.

But we got to thinking about poison ivy. Most poison you get into your body, and then you get very sick or die, and that’s that. The whole point of poison is to stop getting eaten by heaping a pile of dead animals around where they tried eating. But poison ivy? You get it in or on you and then maybe up to three days later you get an irritating rash that lasts up to three weeks. As poisons go this is pretty incompetent. It depends on animals brushing up against it and then, a couple days later, being pretty irritated. And then the animals are supposed to peruse their travel logs and review any suspicious plants they might have passed near. And then after extensive reviews determine the element in common to all these itching incidents is being up to seventy-two hours removed from the close proximity of a bit of poison ivy. That’s asking a lot from animals, who are lousy at tracking infection vectors, except the Malayan Golden Forensic Mousedeer.

So I put “the heck is even with poison ivy” into DuckDuckGo and right there on the first page of results is a link from something called “mamapedia” and I’m not going to touch a link with a domain name like that. My most optimistic guess is it’s like Wikipedia but with the charming parts of a southern accent. According to some non-scary-pedias the thing that makes poison ivy so kind-of poison-ish is called urushiol. Turns out nearly all the itch-based plants, like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, sumac oak, oak ivy, and so on, get their itching by liquids called urushiols. Urushiol is a kind of compound known as an oleoresin, which is a kind of resin whose name you can yodel.

It’s not a poison, though. These plants use it somehow to retain water. That it irritates skin is a side effect. The plant doesn’t get anything out of it. It’s just the plants needed to retain water and they muddled on the best they could. There’s a lesson for us all in that. I like to imagine if we explained the situation to a session of the Poison Ivy Witenagemot, in a committee of the whole, they’d apologize. “We had no idea,” surely they’d declare. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” and then we could share with them water-tower technology. And we’d all have a good laugh about the misunderstanding that caused so much irritation over the centuries. They’ll mend their ways, limiting their irritation to watching old TV shows on modern HDTVs with the aspect ratio all wrong. I’m not saying that isn’t also irritating. But it’s a quicker kind. It’s an irritation you can resolve simply by jumping up and down and shouting, “What is wrong with you people? We spent fifteen years explaining letterboxing movies to you and you finally got it and now don’t you even notice how everybody on The Mary Tyler Moore Show looks like a pile of mashed potatoes wearing Seventies Plaid?!” and then being asked to leave the room.

It turned out our poison ivy wasn’t, anyway. It’s an easy mistake to make. Poison ivy comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, ranging from stringy vines crawling around dead trees up to functional self-service gas stations ready for the new chip cards the United States is getting in twenty years after everybody else in the world. All you can be sure of is that leaves-of-three thing, but it’s no surprise if you count up the leaves on a perfectly innocent plant it might happen to be a multiple of three. Something like a third of all the counting numbers are a multiple of three. Still, ours was a false alarm. The plant was a perfectly innocent Striated Woodsy Guiltywort vine, brought over from the old country by settlers who thought that was a good idea. And that emergency cold shower after applying all that urushiol repellant was just jolly good practice in being made miserable after poison ivy exposures.

Also besides not being actually all that poison, poison ivy isn’t ivy. At some point you have to wonder if the people who named it were quite sure what they were doing.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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