Monday, June 27, 2011

From Aversion to Acceptance - how I learned to love poison ivy

 "In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous." ~ Aristotle

I took a long walk around our property this weekend and marveled at the beauty of all of the luscious green poison ivy.

I had a bad run-in with the weed years ago, back when we first bought our little plot of land. The rash and the accompanying welts were horrible and from that day forward, I had waged a fruitless battle against the villain that had caused me so much agony.

I am a "green" gardener. I try my best not to harm the planet in any way. In most aspects of my gardening, I avoid harsh chemicals at all costs.

My deep love of the natural world, in fact, makes me appreciate, admire, and want to protect almost every bit of living matter in the world, regardless of its inherent admirable qualities or lack, thereof.

But the poison ivy was the exception. I not only bought herbicides, but I bought the full strength, super-noxious concoctions that were said to kill even the toughest weeds – including the much-maligned poison ivy. I would cover my body in long pants and sleeves and head out, spraying the chemical compounds on the bright green leaves, wishing death upon them.

My attempts were mostly futile. The beautiful green plant thrived and continued its journey up my trees and across the back edges of our land.

My whole relationship with poison ivy was causing me personal angst:  My fear and loathing of it;  The fact that it had encouraged me to go against my personal beliefs and spray poisons on the planet; and the  sense of defeat that I always felt when it continued to thrive despite my best efforts to control it.

But two things occurred this weekend that made me change my mind about this pervasive plant.

The first was a visit from my young friend Jaden. Jaden is the grandson of a friend of mine, and when he comes to visit, his dad sits and visits with my husband and Jaden and I go out to explore the natural world around our property. We had been walking through the grassy area of our yard for only a few moments, headed toward the tadpole pond, when Jaden said, “My legs already itch from the poison ivy.”

Now the thing is, there is no poison ivy anywhere near where we were walking. The poison ivy is only at the far edges of our piece of land and we were nowhere near it. But I had put the thought of poison ivy into Jaden’s head on a previous visit, when we were out walking in that area, and I had made this self-proclaimed “nature boy”  think negative thoughts about being outside in nature.

But the other thing that occurred this weekend that made me decide to change my mind about poison ivy was a wonderful op-ed piece I read in the online edition of the LaTimes called Poison Ivy: Everything You Need to Know and More, by Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer, Deborah Blum.

It’s a beautifully written article, and I encourage anyone who enjoys good prose to read the whole piece. But here are some highlights that helped to change my mind about poison ivy:

And poison oak and ivy — if one can manage objectivity — really are ornamental and startlingly pretty, especially when they unfurl crimson leaves in the spring or blaze into fiery copper in autumn. In fact — and this is confirmed by the website at Monticello — President Thomas Jefferson once ordered poison ivy as a decorative vine for the garden of his beloved Virginia home…. 

The plants' ability to be everywhere makes them a dependable meal for species ranging from insects to deer. Poison ivy vines produce tiny greenish-white flowers and silvery winter berries. Wild bees feed on poison ivy flowers, and no, the honey is not toxic. Wild birds depend on those waxy berries in the winter — among the varieties known to feed on them are woodpeckers and warblers, wrens and robins, blue birds, sapsuckers and, I mention this one because I love the name, the tufted titmouse.

Blum does go on to list some of the negative aspects of this pervasive plant, including the news that scientists predict that it may become more toxic as it adapts to climate change.

But her description of the beauty of the plant was enough to help me change my mind. Suddenly, my strong desire to eliminate this species from our property seemed as ridiculous as wanting to wipe out all the bees and yellow jackets (which are such important pollinators ), all the mosquitoes (which feed the birds and dragonflies and bats) or even all the roses (that help to feed my soul), because they have sometimes caused me pain.

So I decided to give poison ivy another chance. I took my little garden stool outside and sat near a thriving little patch and I just looked at its deep green foliage and its strange hairy roots. I kept my distance. I didn’t tempt fate. But my fear and loathing gradually disappeared and were replaced with a guarded appreciation of the plant. I’ve decided to let it stay.

Oh, I’ll give it the same wide berth that I give snakes and yellow jackets when I see them, but I already feel better about my change in attitude. I’ll have one less toxic chemical in my yard and one more beautiful, wildlife-feeding  plant. It seems like a win-win situation.

**Note: poison ivy can certainly cause a lot of miserable anguish. If you have it on your property in an area that does not allow you to avoid and appreciate it, see my previous post Tips for Dealing With Poison Ivy in the Winter Garden.

If you decide, like me, to give up your herbicides, here’s a post that will help you find a site for proper disposal.

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