Wrong plant, ma’am

The coyotes rested beneath a dense bower.  I could see them but couldn’t find a clear view.  Earthen shadows mingling in a world of shadows was all they appeared to be, yet a bit of movement here and the flash of an eye there told me what they were and where they were.

These woods are closed woods, thick woods with every available space occupied by verdant flora.  In winter they are passable; from spring through autumn they are at best difficult to navigate and at worst impossible to get through.  I moved slowly along the drip line, briers and brambles reaching skyward and embracing each other to create impenetrable brush.  Every few steps I caught a glimpse of the coyotes.  But I wanted photos and this riparian jungle was doing everything it could to ensure that didn’t happen.

I slowly made my way around a curve in the forest edge.  That’s when I came upon a young woman standing motionless near the trees.  She stared intently through heavy foliage and around ligneous obstacles.  She seemed to be looking in the direction of the coyotes.

My sudden and silent appearance gave her a brief start.  She recovered quickly and turned to me.  Her eyes fell upon the camera for a short moment, then she looked at me and said, “What are you photographing?”

I hear that question a lot.  I gave my standard reply: “Everything.”

“Oh, cool,” she commented, then she added, “I think there are some coyotes right there.”  She pointed.  “But they’re hard to see.”

“Yes, I was just looking for a way to get some photos of them.”

“Then I should get out of your way.”

I had every intention of working around here.  I’m not pushy.  Still, I appreciated the gesture.  “That’s kind of you.  Thanks.”

She took a few steps backward.  Behind her rose a leviathan tree, an eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that seemed to hold the sky atop its highest limbs.  Already our summer snow had been falling for weeks, so beneath the tree was a blanket of seeds and seed hairs that colored the ground white, and the air moved in a constant, dizzying slow falling of snowy particles.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) growing on the side of a tree (2010_04_10_052875)

To the trunk of the tree clung two vines, each winding its way toward the heavens.  In places the lush growth mingled together and in others the two plants seemed to avoid one another.  The woman backed against the tree and leaned into a thick patch of one of the vines.

“Uh, you shouldn’t lean on that stuff,” I immediately said.

She glanced over her shoulder before replying, “Oh, it’s OK.  It’s not poison ivy.  That’s what’s growing over there.”  She pointed at the second vine partway around the tree.

Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) growing on the side of a tree (2010_04_10_052881)

“No, really, you’re in the poison ivy.  That other stuff is Virginia creeper.  Remember, three leaves means bad and five leaves means good.”

“Are you sure?”  Her eyes widened a bit.

“Yes, I’m quite sure.”

The damage had already been done.  The ivy had rested in her hair, on her clothes, on her bare neck and arms, on her legs.  If she’s allergic to it, she was going to be in a world of misery quite soon.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) often grow in the same places.  They both like the same conditions: soil, light, drainage.  So where one is found, the other shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Close-up of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) leaves (2010_04_10_052876)

For people like me who aren’t allergic to poison ivy, recognizing the three-leaved pattern is a convenience, not an imperative.  Though it goes without saying that repeated exposure to the plant’s oils will sensitize me to them, at which point I become allergic.  So I don’t go around touching it intentionally, but I also don’t panic if I find myself in contact with it (which in my life has been a handful of times, at least that I know of).

Close-up of Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) leaves (2010_04_10_052879)

Knowing the five-leaved pattern of Virginia creeper, on the other hand, is a matter of being a good naturalist.  Since the plant poses no threat, recognizing it is the same as recognizing a dandelion or a bald cypress tree.  Then again, perhaps knowing that the five leaves are harmless is another way to remember that three leaves could be a problem.

As for the woman, I can only imagine her anguish if she’s allergic to poison ivy.  When I was quite young, one of our neighbors found herself in the thick of the vine.  She swelled up and broke out in a horrible rash.  We—as children are wont to do—laughed because she looked like a sunburned chipmunk packing peanuts in her jowls.

And those coyotes?  I never found a clear view of them.  When I tried to work my way into the woods hoping to locate a clear view, they bolted.  Which sounds all too familiar.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) with a bit of Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) visible on the left edge of the frame.  Note the woody vines beneath the poison ivy; those are poison ivy from previous seasons and, though they look dead, they aren’t and they can pass on the same chemical attack as the green vines.

[2] Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with a bit of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on the right side of the frame.

[3] Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).  Notice the oily appearance of the leaves.

[4] Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

12 thoughts on “Wrong plant, ma’am”

  1. Though I used to be allergic as a child, somewhere along the line I too lost my allergy to Poison Ivy. Who knows how that happens but it’s certainly a benefit when tracking through woods looking for Swainson’s Warblers and such.

    1. I had the same but opposite change with ant and wasp stings, Nate. I wasn’t allergic as a child; when I became a teenager, I became deathly allergic.

      And I’m with you on seeing not being allergic to poison ivy as a benefit. Like you, I wander through dense woods and thickets far too often to worry about it. If I was allergic, I can’t imagine how it would curtail my wanderings.

  2. Oh, ouch!

    Young poison ivy leaves are among the prettiest of leaves, I think. (I don’t react so I can afford to love it.)

    1. That was my thought, Jain: Ouch! That’s gonna hurt.

      You’re so right about the young poison ivy leaves. They’re quite beautiful with hints of reds and yellows mixed in with the stunning bright and dark greens.

  3. Sorry the coyotes didn’t stay for you, but I enjoyed your post either way . I’m with you, luckily the ol’ PI doesn’t make me hurt. Which is a really good thing, since I’m around it so often.

    1. It’s funny how not being allergic to poison ivy seems directly related to how much one gets out and enjoys nature, Jill. Most of the people I know who spend a great deal of time pursuing every goody nature has to offer tend to be not allergic to poison ivy.

    1. I’m not one to enjoy the suffering of others, Amber, so I really felt for her when she backed into it and she seemed so confident that it wasn’t poison ivy. Part of me thought she must know and not be allergic like me, but the bigger part of me was shocked and sympathetic for what probably would be a lot of suffering later. Whether she’s allergic or not, hopefully she did understand I was trying to help her learn how to stay safe.

  4. I think I must not be allergic…a few times I’ve wandered into a patch and panicked upon discovering my mistake…yet I’ve never had a reaction. Lucky me! I hope that poor woman is equally lucky!

    1. Your experiences sound like how I learned I wasn’t allergic, C. The first time was when I was a child playing hide-and-go-seek, so I hid inside a jumble of vines. Um, oops! It was all poison ivy. Since then I’ve been in contact with it enough to know it doesn’t affect me, including having a park ranger point out a few years ago that I was standing in the middle of a large waist-high patch of the stuff (which I knew, but I wasn’t worried about it).

      And I’m with you: I’ve seen people who react to it. It’s not pretty. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Hopefully she’s not allergic. But if she is, maybe she learned how to recognize and avoid it.

  5. I’m already experiencing Phantom Itch after reading your entry. The horrid stuff swarms the woods around my house. I was severely allergic when we first moved here. I seem to be a little less affected now, but part of that may be that I’m better at identifying it now.

  6. Phantom Itch. I love it, Joy! I bet you are getting better at identifying and avoiding it. Also, I just read at the American Academy of Dermatology that sensitivity decreases with age; that’s why some kids lose the allergy when they reach adulthood and why adults tend to become less sensitive over time. For people who are allergic to it and spend enough time in nature, that has to come as good news.

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