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Nature Notes: Just Itching

By Ed Robinson

I dreaded getting on the school bus that morning, anticipating the reaction to our appearance. As soon as we started down the aisle my brother and I were the targets of laughter, teasing and name calling. Since we looked like characters from the 1960’s movie “The Living Dead” the humor at our expense was well placed. Charlie and I could barely defend ourselves against the onslaught since we were two hurting buckaroos.

What triggered the public shaming? Just another bone-headed idea acted out by a couple of teenage boys! Since many of the goofball things my brother and I got into down the years sprang from my devious mind maybe I should take the blame on this one. It might have been less embarrassing if Mom had been more sparing with the calamine lotion but she was just doing what mothers do. Perhaps one day Charlie will forgive me for getting him into the mess.

It was so darned exciting to get cracking on the log cabin. In an era when boys were glued to the television each week as the actor Fess Parker brought first Davy Crockett, then Daniel Boone to life, there were two things most boys coveted – a coonskin hat and a log cabin (flintlocks for kids were frowned upon by most parents). My brother and I had the hats (a bit warm most of the year) and were determined to build our own cabin, unburdened by any knowledge about how to do so. Using Dad’s old double-bladed axe and a hatchet, we were hacking away in the low-lying patch of woods selected for our cabin.

It was hot work, so we stripped off our cotton work gloves and shirts to cool down. We got a fire going to burn dead limbs scattered around the site. Once we dropped a tree, we pulled off the stringy vines clinging to the bark and threw those into the fire. In our enthusiasm, we took little notice of the unusual vines and the vegetation on the ground around us. Big mistake!

Poison ivy in fall.

You guessed it – that patch of woods was perfect habitat for a lush crop of poison ivy. We had been taught to recognize low growth poison ivy but had never encountered the plant in the form of shrubs or chunky vines. I don’t recall ever having a reaction from poison ivy prior to the cabin project, and in fact, up to 25 percent of people are born with a natural immunity. The rest of us begin to suffer symptoms once we are exposed for the first time. In our boyish enthusiasm for the new cabin, we broke just about every rule of dealing with poison ivy except the prohibition on eating the leaves. Man, did we pay a price for our ignorance!

This allergenic plant is a distant relative of mangoes, pistachios and cashews. Unless you have a nut allergy, the only risk from those plants comes from chewing the skin of a mango, giving you a blister rash around your mouth. Poison ivy and its closer relatives in the Toxicodendron genus, poison oak and poison sumac, produce an oily toxin in their sap called urushiol that caused the problems we experienced. Urushiol causes a contact dermatitis that manifests itself with a painful, itchy rash along with blisters that ooze a clear pus if broken open. Only the urushiol is toxic, not the liquid from a blister, but a broken blister can result in an infection if not cared for properly.

Eastern poison ivy (T. radicans) is found in Maine and exists throughout the eastern parts of the US and Canada, down into Mexico, Central America and some islands in the Caribbean region. It is classed as a woody perennial plant, and once it is established, it continues to spread until disrupted or eliminated by natural causes or man (generally by using herbicides). While commonly found as a low ground plant poison ivy can grow into shrubs up to four feet tall or climb tall trees in search of sunlight. The vines have stringy fingers on the sides called “air roots” that allow the vines to take a tight grip on tree bark and may reach six inches in diameter at maturity. In all forms poison ivy is bad news for humans since urushiol is found in most parts of the plant, but it seems that no other animals are affected by the oil beyond a few primate species. Research indicates that to be exposed to urushiol there must be a break in the plant but animals may chew on the plant thus releasing the oil for later contact with you.

The plant has what are called compound leaves, meaning there are three parts to each leaf. Those parts are called leaflets, with two on opposite sides of the stem and one at the terminal end. This is the foundation of the old cautionary note – “Leaflets three, let it be.” Unfortunately, the leaflets are inconsistent in appearance, ranging from one to six inches long, sometimes glossy, other times a dull green with some red along the rim. Leaflets can be smooth or hairy, and smooth, lobed or toothed in shape. The small flowers vary from light green to yellow, and the berries formed after pollination end up a waxy tan color. In the fall the leaves turn bright red.

Poison ivy is considered an early successional plant, springing forth in the early years after a forest fire or ground disturbance such as logging. It spreads easily because many creatures consume the berries and leave undamaged seeds behind when they defecate. The plant can handle a wide range of soil conditions and prospers with full sun. Despite the impact on humans, poison ivy berries and leaves are a food source for birds, deer, bears and small mammals. A mat of vines on the ground provides cover for small creatures and the Dutch even plant poison ivy on the banks of earthen dikes for erosion control.

To avoid exposure to urushiol you must avoid the plant or wear protective clothing. If you come into contact with poison ivy immediately clean the exposed skin with soap and cold water, making sure to avoid contact with your eyes, nose and mouth. Clothing, tools, car seats and pets should be thoroughly cleaned to avoid future transfer of the persistent oil to your skin. If you are lucky you will simply develop a mild rash and skin lesions. They may appear over a few days since the oil penetrates some areas of the body more easily than others. Treatment options include the old standbys calamine lotion, witch hazel or Burrow’s solution, along with modern anti-itch creams, antihistamines and corticosteroids. Bathing with baking soda or oatmeal can help to dry the sores and ease itching. An old folk remedy, the use of jewelweed sap, has not proven effective in clinical trials. Most skin problems will ease after a week to ten days.

If you are unlucky or foolish as I was, you may end up with sores in your nose, mouth and throat. Ingesting any parts of the plant or worse, breathing smoke from the plant, may lead to serious health problems including death. In hindsight, my brother and I were very lucky not to face worse consequences from our blunder in the woods. I ended up quite sensitive to the oil and after repeated bouts of skin problems developed an allergy to topical hydrocortisone cream.

Poison ivy is a part of the natural world, but I have no warm feelings for the plant. It turns out that I share my attitude with Batman, since one of his archrivals is a villainess named Poison Ivy, introduced by DC Comics in 1966. Hmmm, that is just about the time we took to the woods…

We never finished the cabin.

This article is borrowed from Ed’s forthcoming book, “Nature Notes from Maine, Volume Two,” which will be released in fall, 2021.

July 2021