The Vine

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Natural and Spiritual Aspects of Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is "a shrub or climbing vine, older stems of vines fastened to trees by a dense growth of aerial rootlets and often climbing into treetops. Common to abundant in and at the edges of wooded areas, and containing an oil capable of causing intense itching and watery blisters through contact with the skin. Leaves variable in size, divided into 3 leaflets on an often reddish tinged petiole; the terminal leaflet symmetric, roughly ovate but lobed and toothed, larger than the lateral ones; lateral leaflets are asymmetric, lobed and toothed on the side toward the leaf base and usually only toothed on the opposite side, turning orange and red in autumn. Flowers greenish white, inconspicuous, in clusters up to 4 inches long. Fruit cream to white, sometime a dull yellow, spherical, about 1/4 inch in diameter, conspicuous on bare twigs in winter." -Brother Daniel Lynch, C.S.C., Native & Naturalized Woody Plants of Austin & the Hill Country

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are folk names for the same plant, often used interchangeably and with much confusion, depending on the region. Poison sumac, a related species with five or more leaflets and growing as a shrub or small tree (though not in central Texas) is also often confused with Poison Ivy. East of Austin, in the Lost Pines, and further east, in the Piney Woods of east Texas and the southeast, there is a closely related species, Toxicodendron quercifolium, which could be more properly called Poison Oak, at least in Texas. ("Quercifolium" means "oak leaf" in Latin nomenclature.) Both local species, as well as several other Toxicodendron species in other parts of the continent, and Poison Sumac, have the same oil, urushiol, which is the substance that gives
Poison Ivy its most charming reputation. Urushiol oil is extremely potent: Only 1 nanogram (billionth of a gram) is needed to cause a rash, and an average is 100 nanograms for most people. 1/4 ounce of urushiol is all that is needed to cause a rash in every person on earth! Specimens of urushiol several centuries old have found to cause dermatitis in sensitive people. 1 to 5 years is normal for urushiol oil to stay active on any surface including dead plants The word is derived from urushi, Japanese name for lacquer.

The reaction to urushiol is not a toxic reaction; it is a true allergy, differing from other skin allergies only in that about 80% of all humans are (or could potentially become) allergic to this substance! Like other allergens, it takes at least one exposure involving direct contact with the oil for a person to become sensitized; after the potentiating exposure/s, every contact begins a series of agitated immune responses resulting in the familiar rashes, blisters and oozing pustules.

Poison Ivy's message is specific to humans. Birds and other creatures eat the berries, and even goats and cows and deer at least incidentally browse the foliage, with no negative consequences whatsoever.

Brother Daniel Lynch points out that Poison Ivy is an edge species. She springs up at the edge of forest, like many other vines will do, to close in the forest, and to seal it off, if any disturbance has opened the canopy. This is why roadsides and even wide trails are favored habits of Poison Ivy. She guards the edges of the forest and says, "None shall pass!" (Unless of course they are the immune 20%) Another edge environment she frequents is waterways, and so she protects the erodable soils along creeks' and rivers' sides.

What is a warning to some can be a teasing invitation to others. If we heed Poison Ivy's message to tread lightly in these sensitive areas, if we know her face well enough to avoid direct contact with her body, she will often lead us to places of beauty seldom seen by less mindful two leggers. Once we have been initiated into this process, she may also lead us in other environs, where she does not grow in body, but wanders in spirit, into exquisite discoveries. Whenever we find ourselves wandering from one experience to the next unexpected, and then realizing that we are blissfully lost, we have hearkened unto her call.

Another of Poison Ivy's lessons is the ability to discern between a thing and another that seems to be the same. By discerning the difference between her trifold leaflets and the trifold leaflets of the Box Elder, for example, or between the five leaflets of Virginia Creeper and the sometimes occurrence of Poison Ivy manifesting five leaflets, we can discern between reality and something masquerading as truth.

If we have learned that we are sensitive to Poison Ivy's message, our first inclination is to know how to recognize her in the wild. She is for many of us the first plant species we know how to identify, but, she hopes, not the last. She is the one who initiates us into plant identification, but she sees no reason that other plant species should not be known by name and reputation as well.

The receiving of wisdom is sometimes related to the reception of a poison, as in the poison of the Amanita Mushroom, or other poisons of hallucinogenic plants and animals. The serpent Priestesses of ancient Crete and other Oracles around the world have used the toxins of snakebite to receive visions and truths, and the bite of spiders is also similar to this injection of knowledge that is sometimes painful to the recipient. Likewise, the poison of Poison Ivy is correspondent with wisdom that, in this case, dawns painfully after the fact. Her teachings therefore speak to the gaining of insight and compassion through the process of Regret. Poison Ivy can help up with regret, loss, and grieving. She supports herself on strong trees in the forest, and so can we in times of need.

By the doctrine of signatures, according to which the appearance of a thing reveals at least some of its true nature, Poison Ivy shows herself to be sacred to Hecate, who rules most of the baneful, toxic, and entheogenic herbs. "Leaves of three," each leaf seeming a bit like a beckoning hand, indicate the triple goddess, in this case this goddess of the crossroads, who monitors the choices in life that we make. If we find ourselves at a crossroads in life, with a difficult choice to make, perhaps Poison Ivy's link to Hecate can be availed. If we ignore her advice, well, it would not be for the first time.

Poison Ivy makes a beautiful landscaping plant in situations where human access is unnecessary or unwanted. Her protective role in nature is perhaps an underutilized strength in urban neighborhoods. Back fences and property lines are natural places to plant Poison Ivy, where she could be a lovely wild backdrop to more formal plantings, especially taking into account the fall colors she provides. Any place overseen (but not overgrown) by Poison Ivy would be appropriate for the household pet cemetery or meditation nook. If you need to trim your Poison Ivy, simply wear thick plastic bags over your hands and trim into a plastic leaf bag, while uttering the appropriate prayers and obeisances. The trimmings will often root easily if deposited in appropriate habitats, perhaps those places in need of Protection, Truthfulness, Discernment, Wisdom, Compassion, or aid in the process of Regret. Planting Poison Ivy can be a truly revolutionary, enwildening action, politically, personally, and spiritually, and will certainly strengthen the bond between you and this powerful Plant Ally.

Cedar Stevens
June 2004


At 4:12 AM, Blogger Tinman said...

I've gotten the rash twice since I moved into the trailer, both times exclusively on my boobs. Any insight as to what this means?

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there an issue with a woman in which you are experiencing regret or grief? As the breasts are where we give and receive nourishment from, did something happen in your path (with mother? a sister?) where you are still berating yourself for something that happened?

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Zephora Zonum said...



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