In Connecticut where I grew up, poison ivy is everywhere. The name pretty much tells you not to go near it. It’s covered with an oily resin that can cause a nasty reaction if you touch it. My mom taught us what poison ivy looks like, and she showed us the difference between it and Virginia creeper. Poison ivy has three leaves, and they’re typically very shiny. Virginia creeper has five leaves, and they’re duller. Mom never told us “leaves of three, let it be.” I learned that later in life.
Somehow, my brother and sister managed to “get” poison ivy, despite the warnings. For Charlie, it wasn’t too big of a deal, some blisters and itching. But Eileen’s whole face swelled up, and her eyes shut to little slits. She got to stay home from school, and when my mom took her grocery shopping, the man at the deli counter gave her rock candy because he felt sorry for her.
This made me pretty jealous.
The next time Eileen came down with poison ivy, I decided I wanted some extra attention, too. I went to the rock hill, one of our favorite adventure spots, grabbed some handfuls of poison ivy, and rubbed it all over my arms and especially on my face. That should do it, I thought. I waited for the itching and swelling, but it never came. As it turns out, not everyone is allergic to poison ivy, and I am one of those people. Of course, that was definitely a good thing! Little did I know how serious poison ivy can be. One of Charlie’s friends got it so bad that he was admitted to the hospital. He had a systemic reaction and even had blisters on the bottoms of his feet and had to crawl around on his hands and knees.
As a grown up, I spend a lot of time outside, hiking and climbing rocks in places like West Virginia, where the poison ivy is lush and rampant. Even though I’m not allergic, I avoid it. No sense tempting fate!
I read somewhere that European gardeners treasure poison ivy for its beautiful red fall foliage—another example of a North American plant that is ignored or even despised at home, but sought after on other continents.
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For a story about a wild plant whose fruit you can harvest, read “The Blacker the Berry, the Sweeter the Smile.”
Author: Elizabeth Erskine