Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What's the Scariest Thing in the Forest?

I commonly start a nature hike by asking the participants this question.  The answers range from wolves, bears, snakes, etc.  Take a look at the picture below and you will see what I consider the thing to most avoid on any walk in the woods, backyard, and schoolyard.

Well, do you see it?  No, not the black and white furry thing.  That is inconsequential.  We will probably  discuss he/she at a later date.  The scary thing is the plant he is walking through.  Poison Ivy!

There is a ton of confusion and falsehoods when it comes to this native plant. It has red and shiny leaves is a common misnomer.  Or, "I have never gotten poison ivy, just poison oak".

Let's try to clear all this up.  First, poison ivy grows east of the Rockies.  Poison oak grows in the Western United States.  Poison sumac is a small tree that almost always grows in swampy water, so it would be highly unusual for a person to come in contact with it.  Second, poison ivy is a vine that can grow along the ground, up trees and fences, and occasionally will grow in a bush form.  Third, poison ivy leaves are not usually shiny and red.  This occurs when the leaves are first emerging in the spring.  Very soon they become green and not shiny like most of the other plants.  The plant leaves will turn a beautiful bright red in the fall just before they fall off.  For most of the growing season the leaves are green with no shine.

On the right is a picture of our friend walking amongst some poison ivy and another plant that is commonly confused with poison ivy.  Mnemonic rhymes are very helpful when it comes to remembering things like how to identify poison ivy.  The best ones are "leaves of three, let it be", and "hairy vine, no friend of mine". The poison ivy is above Mr. Stinky's head and back. The plant in the foreground has five leaflets and is virginia creeper.  It is the only harmless thing to touch in the picture!
On the left is a picture of the aerial rootlets or "hairs" that are key in identifying the plant in winter.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen these hairy vines growing up the fences or trees around playgrounds and peoples homes.
What happens when someone comes in contact with poison ivy?  Take a look at my arm below.  I am highly allergic to the urushiol oil that is found in all parts of the plant.  This case is probably from hugging my dog, who constantly runs around the edge of my yard where poison ivy can commonly be found.

There are studies that predict poison ivy is becoming increasingly prolific as a result of global warming and climate change.  Its urushiol oil is becoming more potent and growth more robust.

So, lets have a final test to see if you can identify poison ivy and stay away from it.  Here is a picture of Mr. Stinky amongst more poison ivy, virginia creeper, and various other green nondescripts.  Can't pick it out?  Well, the other most important thing to remember when hiking is to stay on the trail.  Especially if you are wearing shorts!

Mr. Stinky says, Thanks for visiting the Westmoreland Sanctuary Blog!  Come back soon.
Stephen Ricker-Director

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