Gee, what's this pretty plant with three shiny leaves?


I was weeding the flower bed by hand, ripping up plants left and right. Tearing through the garden with reckless abandon, I stopped once to examine the debris in my grasp.

There, among the purslane and plantain, was a pretty little plant with three shiny leaves.

Egad. I was holding poison ivy in my bare fist.

I dropped the weeds and recoiled in horror. Alas, it was too late. I had already touched the dreaded plant. Worse, I had clutched the poison ivy between my fingers and rubbed it into my skin, as if it were just another harmless weed and not THE PLANT FROM HELL.

I reacted quickly, washing my hands with soap and water. I pressed crushed garlic onto the skin. I searched the nearby woods for jewelweed, a plant whose juice helps soothe the irritation caused by the resins in poison ivy. I found none.

Now I wait like a condemned man, resigned to my fate. In several days my fingers will start to itch, and bumps resembling tiny mountain ranges will appear there. Then I will cover the region with useless creams and salves whose sole purpose is to make the mountains appear snow-capped.

In about a week, the itching will stop and the Alps will disappear from my hands.

I hate poison ivy and its nefarious cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, at least one of which may be found in 48 states. If you want to stop scratching, move to Alaska or Hawaii. I'm tempted. No other plants make my flesh crawl.

Yet no other plants belong to a family so unfairly maligned or misunderstood, says John Mitchell, a research associate at the New York Botanical Garden.

DTC It is true that people have died after ingesting the leaves of plants in the poison ivy family. However, some of these same plants are proving helpful in the search for a cancer cure, says Mr. Mitchell.

"The poison ivy plant also makes an interesting model for studying the immune system, including AIDS," he says.

AMr. Mitchell, who has studied plants in the poison ivy family for nearly a decade, says a number of them are actually beneficial to man. We eat nuts and fruit from the cashew and mango trees, both kin to poison ivy. The pistachio is a relative; so is the smoke tree, a popular ornamental shrub.

In India, sap from the marking nut tree, another member of the poison ivy family, is used commercially to mark laundry.

Though poisonous, the varnish tree, another relative, provides lacquer for furniture-making in China. "Some people in the Orient get reactions from sitting on lacquered toilet seats," says Mr. Mitchell. "They develop U-shaped rashes."

Even poison ivy itself, a native American plant, has its boosters, most of whom fancy the plant's brilliant fall foliage of red and violet.

Poison ivy has a place in the Paris Botanical Garden and was introduced in both the Netherlands and South Africa as an ornamental, says Mr. Mitchell.

No less a scholar than Thomas Jefferson made poison oak a handsome addition to his gardens at Monticello, Va.

Little did Jefferson know that two centuries later, poison oak would be the villain in one-fourth of the workmen's compensation cases filed annually in California, says Mr. Mitchell.

BEnvironmentalists favor poison ivy as a cover and nesting site for birds, which feed on the gray-white fruit all winter. Birds spread -- poison ivy by scattering the seeds, which germinate under trees, in gardens and along building foundations to torment homeowners each spring.

There are alternatives to using herbicides to destroy poison ivy, but common sense should prevail. One-fourth of us can handle the plants with impunity, but who wants to take the risk?

To remove poison ivy by hand, wear gloves and protective clothing, and be sure to dig up all the roots of the hairy vine. Poison ivy can produce new shoots as far as 20 feet from the mother plant.

Other recommendations include dousing the exposed roots with boiling water, or spraying the plants with several strong applications of a mixture of borax and water.

Do not add poison ivy, oak or sumac to the compost pile, annever burn them. The resins are carried in smoke.

If your skin comes in contact with the plants, don't panic. Wash the affected area within 15 minutes to remove the irritants.

"You can't get poison ivy from touching someone else's blisters," says Mr. Mitchell.

Nonetheless, I doubt if anyone in my office will ask to share my computer terminal for the next week.

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