November 23, 2012

Is It A Myth?

Some of the prettiest fall color here comes from the scarlet leaves of a beautiful native vine that climbs up into the trees. Long after the leaves of the maples and ashes in the woods have fallen, there is brilliant color running straight up the length of the bare trunks and draping the open branches.

It's poison ivy, of course. Toxicodendron radicans. It grows everywhere around us, and if you live anywhere in eastern North America it grows all around you too.

Poison ivy climbs the trees, but on my back hill it also drapes down over the rocky slope, crawling along the ground in very long runners that tangle and snare everything at ground level.  

On the ground it doesn't have brilliant fall color; that seems to be a feature of the vine when it reaches the sunlight of a bare canopy.

I'm pretty familiar with the growing habits of poison ivy here because I spend a lot of time trying to eradicate it, move it, eliminate it, stunt it, pull it down out of the trees, chop it and, mostly, accommodate it where it wants to grow. 

Just to maneuver among the scrub and tend the tree saplings I have planted on the hill, I have to wrestle with poison ivy at every step. The long woody runners wrap around my ankles and trip me. Young pliant vines snap me in the face when I try to pull them away from my growing trees.

I know you are shrieking just thinking about that. Almost everyone has a story of horrid encounters with poison ivy and the misery of the rash it causes.

But I have never had any reaction, despite handling it with bare hands all the time, over a lifetime. Is it a myth that some people are immune to poison ivy allergic reactions?

Experts say that people like me who have never had a reaction simply haven't had one yet. There is no such thing as lifetime immunity, and frequent exposure increases the odds of getting a reaction at some point.
Yes, they say. It is a myth.

So I dread the day when that happens. Right now I enjoy being out in the woods, I love planting and tending to my little forest, and I don't mind the poison ivy, except that it is everywhere.

Without negative associations, I even think it looks nice. Unlike Oriental bittersweet it does not strangle and kill trees. It does not vine by winding around the host structure, instead it climbs straight up the trunk, using tiny hairy rootlets to attach itself.

It is beautiful in autumn.  I don't want so much of it, and I wish it would leave my young saplings alone, but it doesn't frighten me to deal with it.

Yet.

30 comments:

  1. Yes, poison ivy is some of our prettiest fall color. I've never had a reaction either but I can't say I've ever strangled it barehanded though!!

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    1. Cat, it is pretty but overly aggressive. I didn't realize you have it in your area too.

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  2. My husband didn't used to be sensitive to poison ivy either but developed a sensitivity to it a few years ago. I'm morbidly sensitive to the stuff and hate it even if it does have pretty fall color.

    Ugh reading this post is making my hands itch.

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    1. Sweetbay, that is what I am most worried about, stories like your husband's. I fear I will develop a reaction, but I'll never know when that is going to happen.

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  3. Really? You have never had a reaction!?! THat is impressive! I too think it looks nice but I have had the misfortune of some horrible reactions! I will have to take photos of my neighbors vines that grow up her pines. I need help identifying what the vine is...it is starting to creep on my fence and like you said most vines can strangle your trees. Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving!

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    1. Nicole, if only poison ivy wasn't so toxic (or so rampant), people would grow it on their fences and walls like other big vines. I hope your neighbor doesn't have poison ivy on those pines.

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  4. Toxicodendron radicans does not grow in Northern Europe, fortunately or unfortunately.
    Its leaves are nice in Fall time, but it's not hardy for our climate.

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    1. Nadezda, you are fortunate not to have to deal with poison ivy in your climate. It may be beautiful, but it's such a troublesome vine!

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  5. You are so lucky not to be allergic to PI. I can't touch it without getting the dreaded rash. It isn't a pleasant experience. I hope you never become sensitive to it. My husband is the chief PI puller around here. I find it he pulls/digs it out for me because he isn't sensitive to it. I wouldn't mind having it in the garden because like you say it is beautiful during fall and it has berries that the birds love to eat. I almost gag every time I see those delicate looking creatures eating the berries.

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    1. Lisa, I can sympathize with your gag reaction, since poison ivy has such brutal associations for you. I have a severe allergy to peanuts (very severe, like life threatening), and I gag at the thought of anyone putting the nasty stuff on a sandwich. Eeeeuw. I can understand your aversion to poison ivy!!

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  6. My mother in law was pleased that she never had a reaction to poison ivy over the years...until she was hospitalized one day with it! Another friend eventually had horrid reactions to it after weeding amidst roots of it in spring before the foliage emerged. So do be cautious....

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    1. Gardenbug, my worry is that I will have exactly that experience --- a bad reaction after years of handling poison ivy with no problems. And you are right about its sneakiness. It can provoke a reaction in some people just by handling the vines or roots even without the leaves. ugh.

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  7. Consider yourself lucky, Laurrie. For those of us who are allergic to it, poison ivy is nasty stuff. A few times when I've had it I've had to go on Prednisone. Nasty!

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    1. Sue, I have seen the terrible effects on people who are very sensitive and it is awful. My sympathies to you and all those who suffer with poison ivy. Nasty it is.

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  8. Amazingly, I've somehow managed to avoid it (as well as Poison Oak). I guess that counts me among the lucky, who can enjoy that blazing fall color without bad associations :-)

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    1. Scott, yes, you are definitely among the lucky if you haven't had poison ivy ever! I hope your luck lasts.

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  9. Oh I hope you never learn the true ly nasty side of poison ivy!

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  10. I've had the same experience as you, Laurrie. I've long used my bare hands to destroy the brilliant poison ivy, or as I call it, the official vine of New England.

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    1. Lee, I am surprised at how many blog commenters have reported that they too have no reaction to P.I. Among the friends and gardeners I know, everyone is terribly plagued by it. I'm glad to hear you can tolerate our official vine!

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  11. Perhaps it is a myth, but I work with some men who have never reacted to the stuff, and we are around poison ivy all of the time. Some of our crew gets it REALLY bad!
    In the past few years, since an extremely bad poison ivy infection that sent me to the hospital, I have not really suffered a bad rash at all. I know that they it is not possible to develop an immunity to it but unless I knew better I'd say that is what happened to me. I used to have at least one bad rash per season ever since I was boy. But since that hospital trip, I've not really suffered with it at all. Strange?

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    1. Forest Keeper, that's odd -- I had not heard of becoming immune after a lifetime of bad reactions, but you seem to be fortunate now! Working on trees in New England, you and your guys must be constantly battling poison ivy vines. I can't imagine having a job where I had to encounter the stuff and knew I'd be laid up with the rash. Hazardous work!

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  12. Laurrie, Contrary to what the experts say, I do think some lucky people are immune to the toxins of poison ivy. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. It seems that on every landscape installation crew I work with, there's at least one guy who is the immune and gets to pull all the vines once we find them.

    Several years ago I was at a lecture on native plants and the speaker was extolling the virtues of poison ivy and telling us we should leave it alone when we find it in our gardens. I have to say there were not many, if any, people in the audience who didn't hink she was nuts.

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    1. Debbie, I also think the lecturer advocating the virtues of poison ivy is nuts . . . and yet. It is pretty, I can't ever make a dent in its aggressive spread even though I constantly try, and it doesn't bother me. So I can see her point, kind of!

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  13. I guess you are in a win/win/win situation, to have so much poison ivy, to not be allergic to it and to find it kind of beautiful :) I've heard about it more than I've seen it where we live, especially now that I'm in suburbia, although I don't think it grows strong enough to climb trees over here, even in the wild.

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    1. Rosemary, I am trying to make my peace with poison ivy's aggressiveness, so I like your assessment that I have a winning situation here! I like that.

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  14. That's really interesting, I had no idea some people didn't react to this plant. How lucky since you have to deal with it quite frequently. I must be too far north but I've never encountered poison ivy in my life.

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    1. Marguerite, I've heard from others that poison ivy doesn't plague Canadian gardens like it does here. We seem to be ground zero for poison vines (and Lyme disease ticks) here!

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  15. You are so lucky, Laurrie! Actually, I think I used to be immune to it, too; at least, I never had a reaction when I was around it when younger. But we have some around here, too, and the last couple of years I've discovered whatever immunity I might have had is gone, and though I try to avoid it, I always wind up spending some time every summer slathering on hydrocortisone cream. Hope you never lose your immunity to it!

    I noticed this fall for the first time just how pretty poison ivy becomes in the fall...but I'd prefer it didn't show up at all:)

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    1. Rose, it is a mystery how people can have no reaction at certain times, but get it at other times. And how some people are violently susceptible to the rash, others are not at all. They should do scientific studies to figure this out!

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