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Poison Ivy on Martha's Vineyard: The Three-Leaf Itch

What the Colonials called “blister weed” or “Hell’s parsnips” is everywhere on Martha's Vineyard. How to cope? A Vineyard Confidential classic by Holly Nadler.

Toxicondendron radicans — that's poison ivy to you — is the topic of Vineyard Confidential columnist Holly Nadler's rueful scrutiny. (C.K. Wolfson drawing)
Toxicondendron radicans — that's poison ivy to you — is the topic of Vineyard Confidential columnist Holly Nadler's rueful scrutiny. (C.K. Wolfson drawing)

Written by Holly Nadler


Is Martha’s Vineyard the poison ivy capital of the East Coast? Absolutely not! The Elizabeth Islands are covered like an unshorn poodle. But that’s because no one lives there. And Nantucket has its big fat share; it’s a smaller island, but per capita it might have more than we do.

The fact is, 85 percent of humans are allergic to poison ivy, and medical reports estimate 350,000 people are affected each year. That places 275,000 of the cases right here on the Vineyard. (I’m just messin’ with you.)

But seriously, the merest brush with poison ivy doesn’t just cause a dab of redness that will ease off in a day or two. No, it becomes, potentially, this weepy blistery misshapen wound that sometimes swells out to elephantiasis proportions.

And it won’t stop itching. Sometimes for three or four weeks. It’s on your mind constantly, the way a Medieval torture screw must have felt if the henchman twisted it halfway around your thumb, then got called out of the dungeon and left you hanging for an indefinite period of time—not in excruciating pain, but not happy either.

To avoid contact, first you need to know what poison ivy looks like. I’m constantly surprised during walks in the woods with city friends when I point out the demon weed and they say, “Oh, is that it?”

Well, it is deceptively pretty. It resembles the satiny three-leaved branches of a rose bush, without the thorns, which is the one good thing you can say about it. It grows mostly in wooded areas, in open fields and, for some reason, it thrives in lush colonies on the perimeters of new developments. Is there a message in this?

My favorite walk close to where I live is along Farm Pond heading into daisy-inflected meadows and tiny tributaries trickling back to the lake. There is so much poison ivy along the way that one stumble could lead to a head-to-toe rash that could put you in the Do Not Resuscitate category.

So, why stroll there? Well, what the Colonials called the “blister weed” or “Hell’s parsnips” is everywhere, so for our own sanity, we stop thinking about it. We’re bathed in beauty wherever we go, so we just go. You don’t want three to four weeks of unspeakable torment to make you agoraphobic, do you?

Now for those 15 percent of people who are immune to poison ivy, they can be very handy when you need a small crop of the unmentionable shrub in your garden removed. I once conducted an interview with the late Polly Hill, who told me poison ivy posed no threat to her. Staff at her Arboretum constantly called upon her to come dig up the nasties, and she was happy to oblige.

And then there’s my friend Ken Vanderlaske, late of West Tisbury, now living in Florida, and biding his time until he can get back here and fly-fish until every striper in the Sound knows his name. He learned as a little kid he could say ‘hah!’ to poison ivy. To prove it, he ate a handful of the leaves in front of a group of other little boys. A few of them tried it themselves, and ended up in the hospital, their throats drastically swollen. Ken had to find other ways to show off.

But here’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time about this ghastly weed: Sheep love to eat it! They’re woolly versions of Ken: They can digest it, and it provides minerals and fiber as it works its way through their intestinal tracts. On a walk up to the Oak Bluffs Library the other day on School Street, I stopped to chat with a woman who’d recently hired a farmer to bring sheep to graze on the poison ivy in her back field.

Let’s think about doing this as an organized program, okay? Or maybe we could get Ken to come back sooner rather than later, and start him munching the poison ivy along Farm Pond. Although, I don’t know how much of this strange “salad” he can handle at one go; he’s a meat and potatoes kinda guy.

Another fact that gave me momentary hope was that skunks, too, nibble poison ivy. Yes, in addition to poison ivy and ticks, we have the last part in our triad of Island annoyances, skunks. And, ironically, the blister weed won’t hurt the little stinkers, more’s the pity. But this food preference is the one contribution I’ve ever heard of skunks making to our habitat.

However. They only eat the berries. Then they poop them out. Pooped berries lose none of their original fertility, and soon another little toxicondendron radicans sprouts from the soil. (Yes, that’s the Latin nickname.)

Originally published on MV Patch June 6, 2011. Read Holly's new serial novel, "Lady Slipper Farm and the Summer People," on Patch. We're publishing a classic "Vineyard Confidential" column each Saturday.

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