Friday, June 27, 2014

The Poysoned Weed

So it seems as if everybody didn’t always hate Poison Ivy.


The first published account of the three-leaved climbing plant was written in 1624 by the explorer John Smith contained a cautiously worded endorsement of the, at the time, exotic member of the world of vegetation.

“The poysoned weed is much in shape like our English Ivy, but being but touched, causeth rednesse, itching, and lastly blisters…[which]…after a while passe away of themselves without further harme, yet because for the time they are somewhat painfull, [the plant] hath got it selfe an ill name, although questionlesse of no ill nature.”
Smith did not feel however that the temporary rash was of sufficient discomfort to warrant the term “poison”, and in fact thought the plant had the potential for “many usefull employments, which time and industry no doubt will one day discover.” 
The toxic tag nonetheless endured even though the plant was included in Philadelphia horticulturalist William Bartram’s October 1784 package of 220 “American Trees, Shrubs, & Herbs” which he shipped across the Atlantic to eager European collectors.
As reported by Jane E. Boyd and Joseph Rucker in Chemical Heritage Magazine (the source of most of the non-personal information in this essay), “Over the centuries intrepid botanists, daring physicians, master craftsmen, and persistent chemists have looked for the good side of poisonous plants. These vines, shrubs, and trees have been collected as exotic garden curiosities, have been sourced for medicine that might cure rather than harm, and have been harvested for the sticky sap that gives lacquerware its sheen.”
The plant was a horticultural hit with collectors throughout Europe – cultivated and flourishing in such places as the English royal gardens at Kew, the gardens of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, and the gardens of Empress Joséphine Bonaparte, who was an avid amateur botanist and plant collector.  The artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, best known for his paintings of roses and lilies, drew a poison ivy plant with its berries for a luxury publication on native and imported trees and shrubs cultivated in France.  And continental botanists bestowed erudite Latin labels such as Edera trifolia canadensis and Hedera trifolia virginiensis (trefoil or three-leaved ivy of Canada or Virginia) on expatriate weed – nomenclature worthy of a much higher born hybrid.
Still the prolific climbing plant wasn’t able to escape the fear engendered by its scary first name – and never caught on with the general gardening public.  Even the above-mentioned attractive illustration published by Redouté came with the caveat that these vines were best “kept away from ornamental gardens and relegated to those of the curious.”
The earliest accounts of the toxic weed that I personally remember came from my family, who to a person avoided the “great outdoors” (except for beaches), and had a folkloric fear of the plant but no actual experience with it or its effects.  “Oh God Jimmy,” I was told whenever I came within spitting distance of a wooded area “whatever you do, don’t catch poison ivy!”   Which, since we were never in a place where it could actually be seen, was never really pointed out to me.  I was endlessly forewarned but never forearmed. For my first eighteen years I remained free of “rednesse, itching, and lastly blisters”
My initial real life introduction to the plant occurred in the early summer of 1961 at a public park in New Britain Connecticut designed by America’s premier landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead.  I was a member of a summer job crew of teenage horticultural greenhorns assigned to clear out an area of overgrown bushes, weeds and whatnot that marred the appearance and prohibited the use of what should have been public open space in the reserve.   It also contained quite a bit of poison ivy.
The first one to discover the toxic weed was Mike the high school jock – who was not in any way allergic and boasted of this while vigorously rubbing the leaves over his shirtless chest and bare legs.  Stanley the pencil-thin Catholic Seminarian wrapped up tight in long white pants, long white sleeves, buttoned up button-down white shirt, and white cotton gloves likewise seemed as disinterested in the risk at hand as he was with Mike.
I myself was totally unsure how to react so I went into denial mode and just did my job.
I got it on my arms, chest, back and legs and was sent the next day to the town’s medical doctor.  His office was located in a large, gray Victorian house near the park.  He saw me in what probably would have been the residence’s library.  He was perhaps older than I am now, gray-haired, pale-skinned, and smoking a cigarette, which he discarded into the fireplace atop a pile of previously tossed butts and used hypodermic needles.  He lit up again, drew some liquid into the syringe, and squinting through the smoke curling up from his mouth gave me a “poison ivy shot”.  The needle and ultimately the cigarette found their way into the discard pile.  He also told me to apply Calamine lotion – a pink liquid that solidified on contact and relieved the itch for a few hours.  Over the next five days I went back for two more iterations of the vaccine.
I was instructed not to go back to work or to shower until cured.  Wisdom at the time, at least within my family and this physician, was that showering spread the infection.  In fact I was told the reason I had such a “bad case” was because I had washed myself after work.  (Nowadays it is recommended that anyone who comes into contact with the plant should shower thoroughly as soon as possible after exposure.)
A week or so later I was back on the job.  By this time the park had been cleared and I spent the remainder of the summer assigned to a truck that drove around town cutting down branches from the various city-owned trees – none of which had poison ivy (which I now recognized) growing on them.  Mike didn’t get even one little blister. Stanley did – but it didn’t bother him.
Around 1780 André-Ignace-Joseph Dufresnoy, an army physician and medical professor from Valenciennes in northern France, gave a lecture on the plant (what he called “Rhus-Radicans”).  After the talk a florist who was in the audience asked Dufresnoy if he could rub some of the leaves on his hands.  Days later when the painful swelling and rash went away, the florist returned to tell the physician that an ugly old sore on his wrist had completely disappeared.
Dufresnoy was thrilled with the discovery and quickly began concocting medicines from the Poison Ivy.  His self-testing of a twelve-leaf infusion revealed only minor side effects.  So he prescribed it to patients suffering a range of skin maladies and even to some with paralysis of the legs – claiming to get positive results in many cases.        

During the French Revolution he sent some of the young plants from his garden to a physician friend.  Dufresnoy later wrote to his colleague inquiring, “How are our dear Rhus? How I long to see them!” The letter was intercepted and Dufresnoy was arrested on suspicion of conspiring with the Russians (Russes), who were at the time threatening to join the wartime coalition against France.  Fortunately for Dufresnoy the harsh judge who was to hear his case was deposed and the scientist was able to explain his way out of the situation to a more sympathetic magistrate.  Unfortunately upon Dufresnoy’s death in 1801 his brother dug and destroyed all of his Poison Ivy plants.
I somehow stayed free of the plant’s effects for the next twenty-plus years – during which time I married Mars, had a son, purchased a home and became an avocational gardener.  I took care on my trips into the woods not to come in contact with the three-leaved vines along the trail and looked out for it whenever I plunged into the thick vegetation that came with our property – and which required continuous warm weather care to my initial surprise and increasing enjoyment.
Then one Sunday while clearing some brush on the perimeter of our property I saw the tri-pointed leaves in the spot I was working on just as I was finishing up.  Memories of my prior experience kicked in – but there was no question about whether to shower or not.  I was soaked with sweat and barely fit to be by myself.  In order to return to the graces of my family today, and my co-workers tomorrow, a full-on cleanup operation was required.
The rashes began appearing the following morning and were fully visible on my chest, arms and legs by noontime when I changed into my workout clothes for my daily go-round at our health club.  And the itching kicked in.  Unlike during my previous bout with the allergen daily exercise had now become of religious importance for me.  I had on other occasions run outdoors with a sore throat and fever and done similar things that demonstrated my irrational dedication to this regimen.  Being careful not to bring any of my little red spots in contact with any equipment I went ahead with my regular routine.  During my shower afterwards I noticed that the hot water seemed to bring some relief from the itchiness.
Then I remembered that a recent issue of the health club’s newsletter had an article on poison ivy which suggested that exposing the effected areas to water as hot as you could stand released histamines that shut down the tickling sensation.  I cranked up the heat, stuck my right arm into the steamy stream and waited.  The intensity of the prickling increased almost exponentially and then, just as I was having my doubts, the tingling in that location just stopped.  I repeated the process with the other areas of my body, dried off, dressed, and returned to work revived by my workout and relieved of my itching.
I repeated the ritual morning, noon, and night every day for about one week.  Then all was well again.
In the 1880s German geographer Johannes Justus Rein studied the uses of a close relative of Poison Ivy, the Chinese Lacquer or Varnish Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum). Like its American relative, this plant also produces a sticky sap that can cause a virulent rash. Since prehistoric times the Chinese (as well as the Koreans and Japanese) have collected and refined this sap to coat everything from ordinary dishes to fine artistic creations embellished with pigments, gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl. Master craftsmen built up and then carved thin layers of lacquer on wooden containers into elaborate floral and geometric patterns.
During his research Rein contracted lacquer poisoning.  “It is a peculiar, not very painful, and not at all fatal, but always very disagreeable disease, always attacking one new to the work. . . . It appears in a mild reddening and swelling of the back of the hands, the face, eyelids, ears, the region of the navel and lower parts of the body, especially the scrotum. In all these parts great heat is felt and violent itching and burning, causing many sleepless nights. In two or three days the crisis is reached, and the swelling immediately subsides. In severe cases, small festering boils form also.”
Exposure to raw sap and the purified liquid can cause lacquer poisoning, however the dried varnish is completely harmless.
Since my second bout with the itchy plant-born allergen and my discovery of the hot shower solutions I have gotten at least one case per year – just about all of them from plants growing in our own yard.  But the most severe case was from volunteer work I was doing with our town’s Beautification Trust to clear out a hillside of overgrown vegetation at one end of the Public Library parking lot. 
It was an unusually warm autumn afternoon and I quickly removed the down vest I was wearing over a cotton turtleneck and pushed up my sleeves.  Because of the time of year and since I already had my annual dose I wasn’t even thinking about the possibility – and never saw the now familiar-looking leaves.  Later the next day the itchy red dots started appearing…and appearing…and appearing.   

The now tried-and-true hot showers worked but coincidentally I had an appointment with my regular Dermatologist for another reason.  He identified my condition as he entered the examining room and visibly recoiled as he quickly donned his latex gloves.  He conducted my examination from as far a distance as possible and because of the seriousness recommended an over-the –counter cortisone cream which I did use that one time.
I just got my most recent occurrence of the ailment doing more volunteer work in the overgrown gardens of one of our local historic houses.  It is fairly mild – not even generating enough itchiness to make the hot showers that satisfying.
But that brush with the past brought back personal P.I. memories and prompted me to take a look into the background of a plant that seems to have become such a regular part of my life.  
In the 1900s botanists reclassified Poison Ivy – moving it from the “Rhus” (sumacs) into their own genus called Toxicodendron (Greek for “poison tree”).  Two species of poison ivy were identified: T. radicans (“T Rad” to its followers) the climbing vine that is widespread in the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains, and T. rydbergii (“T Ryd”) the nonclimbing shrub found throughout North America except in the southeastern states.
Scientists also became interested in the source of the plant’s toxicity.  Japanese chemist Rikou Majima obtained a sample of the allergic substance by performing a series of filtrations, distillations, and extractions on the sap of the Japanese variety of the aforementioned Varnish Tree.  Majima determined the chemical structure of the toxin, which he named urushiol after urushi, the Japanese word for lacquer.


Even today there are still believers in the good side of “Poison Trees”. 
 Columbia, California (an historic mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) holds an “Annual Poison Oak Show” with prizes for Most Potent Looking red and green leaves, best poison oak jewelry and accessories, and the top photograph of a poison oak rash.
And a few horticulturalists in Japan and the United States train Poison Ivy as Bonsai – miniature trees in containers.
 I can easily imagine a much older Mike the jock raucously competing at the Poison Oak Show, and senior citizen Stanley the Seminarian quietly pruning his Poison Ivy bonsai forest in the dim light of his monastery cell.
As for myself – neither my evolving experience with the toxic weed nor my learning about it’s history has converted me into a Friend of Poison Ivy.  My position however has softened from my childhood fear and trembling, into a grudging acceptance of “T Rad” and “T Ryd” as normal parts of life in the garden.  Meanwhile I make sure to keep the weed killer handy and the hot water burner fired up.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Wherefore the Ducks?

The ducks are back in our yard.  They are a Mallard couple – a glossy-green headed male and his slightly smaller brown-speckled mate.  The pairing, or other identical duos, has made brief cameo appearance on our property every spring for the past several years.  

It’s kind of curious that they choose our front lawn as a stopping off point.  The only nearby body of water is “Folly Brook” – a nearly invisible streamlet which runs underground somewhere in the vicinity of our house.  Town lore tells us that that the creek was the result of an unsuccessful attempt in 1726 to reroute another small stream, named "Beaver Brook" that also flows in this general area. A derisive public began calling the failed aqua-engineering project "the Folly”.  Today there is considerable confusion as to what's “Folly” and what’s “Beaver” – but by any name neither rivulet is of insufficient volume to be of interest to water birds. 
Nor to be a source of danger, or even concern.
Nonetheless in 2007 part of the neighborhood in which Mars and I live was declared a flood zone.  Following Hurricane Katrina several public and private agencies were apparently stunned to discover that the city of New Orleans, built below sea level, was in a perilous position vis-à-vis its aquatic surroundings.  (Who'd'a' thunk it?)   

So the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was tasked with redefining flood regions.  Now there is more flood land then ever in the U.S. of A – and some of it is right here in our own back (and front) yard.  Yet none of us who live in the area can see any encroaching h2o when we look out of our windows – nor is any of it lapping at the foundations of our residences
Although I am not sure whether the duck’s first appearance was pre or post Katrina, I doubt that aquatic fowl follow the ebb and flow of governmental environmental classifications looking for tips on prospective locations at which to hang out.
Several years back – again not sure if it was pre or post Katrina – a family of Mallards actually did nest in one of the bushes in front of a nearby neighbor’s house – ironically just over the border from the newly proclaimed flood area.  They were first discovered when Ed was trimming his shrubbery, and were left in peace for the duration.  There is a pond about one quarter mile away and at the appropriate time in the development of the quacklings they were dutifully led down the street, across another – and into the park containing that small body of still water.  Perhaps it is a member of that family that visits our neck of the woods each year.
While the birds do not find sufficient water for their purposes on our grounds, they do find food  – most of it in the form of kernels of corn that are dropped to the ground by squirrels dining at their “Picnic Table Feeder” which is attached to one of the oaks trees along our front border.  For some reason the furry tailed rodents are unwilling to eat the golden colored food nuggets once they are detached from the ear.  The Mallards however are quite happy to ingest the cast-aside orts from the squirrel’s hastily consumed meals.  In fact, if it were not for the transient arrivals of the ducks, and some passing-by grackles, the above ground portion of the tree’s roots would permanently be buried in maize droppings.
Or maybe the answer to the ducks’ mysterious appearances simply lies in the nature of the breed itself.  As explained by Wikipedia – “The mallard (/?mæl?rd/ or /?mæl?rd/) or wild duck (Anas platyrhynchos) is a dabbling duck…which feed mainly at the surface rather than by diving.” According to, they “also forage on land for seeds and insects.”
I could undoubtedly find out more detailed information about the behavior of these non-diving waterfowl with considerably more research – but I’m really only interested in tinkering with this topic in a casual or superficial way.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Mars and I live in Connecticut – but we vacation frequently in coastal North Carolina so we know a little something about kudzu, aka Pueraria lobata, aka "The vine that ate the South." 

We have in our pre-digital archives the first photo that we took upon entering the Tar Heel State for the initial time.  It was 1983 and with our son Bram we were on our way to spend two weeks at a sight-unseen RV set up by a family friend on land that he and his wife had purchased for future retirement in Carteret, N.C.  We had driven down, as we still do, through the Delmarva, over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and onto the increasingly rural back roads of the south.  It was our son’s and my first time.  Mars had made a similar childhood trip with her family.

We all joked somewhat uneasily about the less than luxurious ambience of the surroundings that we were driving through.  Then, just across the Va.- N.C. border we saw “the house”  – a crumbling, rotting, brown wood structure enfolded and held up by a shroud of green, ever-expanding vines and leaves.  Mars hopped out to capture the sight on film.  All of us hoped that this was not a foreshadowing of what awaited us.

It wasn’t.

But each subsequent time that Mars and I have driven past the site there is more and more kudzu, and less and less building.  And I wonder – what plant is planning on devouring my neck of the woods?  And when will it (or did it) start?

This week I have seen two definite indicators that one or both of a pair of invasives has begun its attack.

Up the street from us – sad to say – is an abandoned, foreclosed abode.  A casual driver-by would not notice this condition – winter snow was removed, springtime grass is neatly mowed.   

Then the other day Mars spotted something new and strange as we drove by on our way home from the health club.  Climbing up the downspout at the front, west corner was a yellow Euonymus bush – much like the ones seen on many lawns, on many properties in central CT – much like the one in the very same geographic location of our front yard.   
It was the first time either of us had seen anything like that – from Euonymus anyway.  We’ve both seen plenty of identical behavior from Carolina Kudzu.  And we both know full well that – with plants as with other revolutionaries – a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

But sprawling Euonymus is awfully obvious.  Another takeover is happening beneath our line of sight – and, in fact, largely underneath the very earth that we walk upon.  I refer of course to the Queen Anne’s Lace uprising – or should I more accurately phrase it underground insurgency.

In the past two weeks I have come across more wild carrots (aka Daucus carota) than I can recall in all of my nearly half-century of down and dirty gardening.  A few years ago they were a pleasant unplanned surprise addition to the variety of the landscape – now you can’t swing a dead cattail without hitting at least one (if not several) of the feathery, pinnate leaves of this biennial faux vegetable.

They are taking over the outer borders of just about all of our perennial beds and – worst of all and hardest to eradicate – they having taken root under (yes under) several of the most thorny bushes in the town’s Weston Rose Garden, which the members of our garden club maintain.

And excising these devious encroachers from their highly fortified bases of operation is no small thing – fraught with skin-piercing, blood-dripping danger. 

On the plus side however, since I needed to sever several little rootlets sent forth by the terrible tubers that served as the bases of these pushy plants, it did give me my first real opportunity to use the tiny sawing blade that’s stashed inside my multi-weapon Swiss-Army-like garden tool.  Removing these ginormous taproots is hard work but doable.  Not so with their threadlike appendages.

And, it is these partially severed tendrils that I was not able to get to the root of that I now fear the most.  As I write this, these insidious invaders are insinuating their way through the nurturing soil innocently provided by unwitting gardeners and preparing to pop up where they are least expected and most likely not wanted. 

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

What I Learned From Frederick Law Olmstead

I spent most of my gardening time last week doing border patrol  – culling out the invading perennial plants that have crossed from the portion of the flowerbed to which they have been assigned into the space that we have allocated for their neighbor.  It’s a never-ending activity with which I have willingly burdened myself in order to have a series of gardens that are filled to the brim with closely cramped, but never overcrowded, variously colored flora.  To borrow a phrase from Mars’ high school part-time employment as a waitress at national ice cream restaurant chain, we want our resident blossoms to be “friendly, but not familiar”.

So it was absolutely appropriate that Mars and I were walking in New Britain, CT’s Walnut Hill Park the other day – the place where I first learned the profound joy of lacerating the landscape in the pursuit of an aesthetic environment.  

This large public area was designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmstead and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.  Over the years Mars and I have been to several other public areas and cemeteries that purport to have been designed by the “Father of American Landscape Architecture – much like bedrooms in which George Washington has slept.   But Walnut Hill Park actually has a signed copy of the original plan to prove it.

 The drawing contains a wading pool with a small fountain that I remember playing in as a young boy growing up in this city.  (Though not a New Britain-ite Mars claims to have also “swum” in these waters and recalls attempting to drown a tall, thin kid that she found really annoying.  I have no such recollection.) 

That water feature is no longer there – at least partially as a result of the Polio scare of the 1950s and the public’s wholesale avoidance of public areas wherein the disease could be spread.  I am sure there were other more fiduciary reasons also.

The original diagram also contains lots of carefully laid out trees and several open fields.  Yet somehow, 90 years after its creation, at least a portion of the actual park had been lost to a wide variety of invasive plants, bushes, and tall grasses, which made useful navigation of these areas impossible and the overall appearance decidedly non-Olmsteadian.

So, who you gonna call? Shrub Busters! – or in this case a bunch of untrained teenage boys including myself, unable to differentiate between a weed and a cultivated plant – or most cultivated things in fact.  In the late 1960s the town of New Britain hired such a horde of horticultural greenhorns and turned us loose on the overgrown and out-of-control savannah with instructions to “rip everything out!”   (Unfortunately in the midst of “everything” was a hefty supply of poison ivy, which some of us discovered we were quite allergic to – but that is another story for another day.)

At the time I did not know anything about Frederick Law Olmstead.  But, after leaving our path of destruction on the terrain, I was totally convinced that now I knew everything I needed to know about garden landscaping.           

Fast-forward to today and I am still applying the knowledge that I garnered in the backwoods of Walnut Hill Park to the perennial gardens of our own open space.  So how much did I actually learn from my hands-on experience with the Father of American Landscape Architecture’s handiwork?

Phrased a little more eloquently than my original marching orders, here are Olmstead’s Design Principles as presented by the National Association of Olmstead Parks.  (Hey, there are only six of them.  How hard can this be anyway?)

“(1) A Genius of Place: The design should take advantage of unique characteristics of the site, even its disadvantages.   The design should be developed and refined with intimate knowledge of the site.”  (In other words – plant whatever you have wherever you have room.)

 “(2) Unified Composition: All elements of the landscape design should be made subordinate to an overarching design purpose.”  (Each of our perennial beds has an “overarching design purpose”  – “New Mexico bed”, “butterfly garden”, etc.   And all of these raison d'êtres were carefully retrofitted onto each section after the fact.  The gardens themselves were “designed” by randomly fitting in plants that we had been given, or bought, or rescued from abandoned gardens, into whatever space was available at the time.  See Rule number 1.)

“(3) Orchestration of Movement: The composition should subtly direct movement through the landscape.”  (Like those Goose Neck Loosetrife and Japanese Lanterns that wander aimlessly from area to area.)

“(4) Orchestration of Use: The composition should artfully insert a variety of uses into logical precincts, ensuring the best possible site for each use and preventing competition between uses.”  (There is no “competition between uses” in our gardens – whatever the hell that means.  Just competition for survival.)

 “(5) Sustainable Design and Environmental Conservation: Plant materials should thrive, be non invasive, and require little maintenance.”  (But a little invasiveness is like a stick shift on a car – it makes you feel needed.)

“(6) A Comprehensive Approach: The composition should be comprehensive and seek to have a healthful influence beyond its boundaries.”   (And that’s where I, aka The Border Patrol, play my oh, so necessary role.)

It occurs to me that the reason Frederick Law Olmstead was able to design so many parks, cemeteries, and gardens in so many different locations is that he never really hung around to pick up after himself.  It’s a luxury that we more down-to earth gardeners simply do not have.