Poison ivy

While humans wisely give poison ivy a wide berth, a large variety of other animals rely on it for food and shelter.

Poison ivy is one of the few plants capable of making even the toughest bushwhacker quickly change direction.

Almost everyone knows why – the typically glossy leaves, arranged in characteristic groups of three, exude oils and resins after they are crushed or disturbed. Once on human skin, a mix of compounds called urushiol goes to work, attaching to human skin cells and tricking the body’s immune system into attacking itself.

Humans are one of the very few animals affected by these compounds, which leads scientists into thinking that they are not a defensive adaptation of the plant. Rather, humans are basically allergic to compounds that poison ivy utilizes in order to better retain water as well as ward off microbial pests.

This is pretty unfortunate for gardeners and forest explorers, as urushiol is found in every part of poison ivy. Only a tiny amount is needed to trigger a reaction – it would take less than an ounce of urushiol to affect the entire human population.

These compounds can stay on surfaces and dead poison ivy vines for years, so caution is required when working around areas with resident populations. I encourage you to allow poison ivy to grow wherever possible, however, as this plant has many benefits that are usually neglected.

Poison ivy grows well in a wide variety of locations and is an important pioneer species when areas are damaged through natural disasters or other means.

There are several forms of poison ivy native to the United States, with Western North Carolina being a mixing ground for several different species.

They are usually apt to take a vining habit, using their bigfoot-level hairy vines to grip onto trees and in some cases even become parasites of their supports. Poison ivy can also grow in areas without trees or other structures, and grows into small shrubs if conditions are right.

While most Americans today don’t give poison ivy any positive second thoughts, in the 1600s Europeans were mystified by the strange plants constantly being discovered in the New World.

Poison ivy was one of those highly sought after “new” plants, and several impressive specimens can still be viewed in some of the most garish and cultivated gardens of England and France. It is of the writer’s opinion that modern American gardens should take a similarly inviting approach to these native vines. A landscape’s resident wildlife would certainly benefit from such a change.

While we are quick to keep a healthy distance, a wide variety of other animals rely on poison ivy for food and shelter. Multiple insect species raise their young in the lush foliage of the vines

The subtle green and white flowers of poison ivy are attractive to a wide variety of pollinators as well. Honey bees can even make poison ivy honey that, thankfully, lacks any ability to cause itchy irritation. After they are pollinated, the flowers lead to large clusters of berries that are important food sources for birds over the winter months.

Larger animals such as rabbit, bear and deer also enjoy munching on poison ivy whenever possible. In some cases, having a healthy patch of poison ivy nearby can deter deer from eating other more delicate plantings, as deer seem to prefer the taste of poison ivy over most other plants. Although it can certainly be irritating to human skin, poison ivy is a real benefit to the native wildlife in an area.

By leaving small out-of-the way areas of poison ivy alone, it can be easy to supply some reliable and maintenance-free food and habitat for struggling native wildlife populations.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.