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.

1 comment:

monica said...

"Leaves of three — makes great TP."