Tuesday, May 25, 2010

As I Sit Itching

I don’t recall my first encounter with poison ivy, but I remember the first with poison oak.  Driving thousands of miles along I-80 was de rigueur among the college set those many years ago.  I commuted between Chicago and California and participated in all manner of things daft.  That included clambering down a cliff to the Pacific Ocean, clad in swimsuit and sandals, only to realize the way back was straight up.  It hadn’t seemed so steep going down, so why was it necessary to crawl through the bushes to reach the top?

The next day I broke out head-to-toe in an itchy rash that didn’t quit.  Off to the free clinic (read:  Berkeley, 1971), where I was given a weak topical.  I spent the night in and out of a freezing bath before dropping the last of my cash on a plane ticket home.

There is something primeval about poison oak and poison ivy that makes me think of remedies of yore:  perhaps bloodletting or fire cupping, although where to place the cups would be tricky with all those little welts.

After that first encounter, I made it my business to know what poison oak and its eastern kinsman, poison ivy, looked like.  Back east, I never, ever, ever strayed off a path, and even while on one, I maintained constant vigilance for those three glossy leaves.

But I didn’t yet know about poison ivy in winter.  At the back of our yard on Long Island, vines crawled up the tree trunks that simply had to be pulled off.  Oriental bittersweet.  All over the place, choking everything in their relentlessly expanding path.  The time to do it was winter, when the leaves were down.

A few days after the great vine yank, my arms sprouted in blisters.  Poison ivy.  But where had I got it from?  Well, of course, those bare vines weren't all bittersweet.  And how did it manage to spread across my back, pray tell?  Oh, the walk-in clinic doctor said (for these outbreaks only happen on weekends when your regular doc's not around), it's an id reaction.  Here's something else to take for that.

Lovely.  Ah little plant, so glossy and green in summer, so gloriously vein-y red in autumn, how well I got to know you, even in your most unrecognizable guise, as a bare brown snaking vine.  Never again, I cried!  And never again it has been.

Then one day recently there appeared on my forearm five little welts in a raggedy row.  They sat peaceably, only slightly itchy.  I thought, probably something in the garden.  That happens with tomatoes sometimes.  Of course, there are no tomatoes, not even tomato seedlings, in our Hudson Valley garden this time of year.  And the cats can’t be blamed, for they’re consigned to indoors since we sighted a coyote in the yard—not to mention the ticks.

A day or so later, there appeared another welt, at the knee.  A day or so after that, one more, on the shoulder.  But that was (almost) all.

My patient poisoner was biding its time for the weekend, of course.  And sure enough, as the sun rose Saturday morning, I awoke to a furious itching on my chin—and not a bit of any pertinent medication in the house.  What was it?  Must be that new hat I bought, with the chin strap.  Treated with something, for the sun.  Must be allergic.

Saturday passed in itching and trying not to scratch, counting the minutes until 9AM Monday when there would be a chance to get an appointment and ask, palms up in supplication, “What is this, what the devil is this?”  But then, Sunday morning, I spied a small swelling about the left eyelid.  Uh-oh.  I remember this from California.  All I need is to wake up tomorrow with an eye swollen shut.

Sunday, sweet day off, what better way to spend it than trooping past Route 9 strip malls in search of the one open urgicenter.  And waiting, of course, lots of top-notch waiting among other hapless clinic-goers similarly marooned, a child bawling in the near distance, and me frantically trying to divert myself with a travel article in the Times.

“I’m Dr. G.”  He took one look.  “Poison ivy.”  He mumbled something about prescriptions, turned on his heel, and left.

Native Americans are said to have offered the Pilgrims a jewelweed poultice, and recipes for this miracle remedy are available even today:
Brew chopped jewelweed in boiling water until you get a dark orange liquid.  Yellow Jewelweed will not yield orange color and may not be effective.  Strain the liquid and pour into ice cube trays. When you have a skin rash, rub it with a jewelweed cube and you will be amazed with its healing properties.  It will keep in freezer up to a year. You can also preserve the infusion by canning it in a pressure cooker.  
Indeed, if you search the internet, it is possible to drown in misinformation about the efficacy of such remedies, but the facts I credit are these:  “CONCLUSION: This study demonstrated that an extract of jewelweed was not effective in the treatment of poison ivy/oak allergic contact dermatitis.”

As I sit itching, dosing pills (passably effective) and donning cream (useless) as prescribed, waiting for the itching to subside, I ask:  what did the Pilgrims do when they encountered this?

My answer?  They sat with their jewelweed poultices and itched.

Postscript:  On the other hand, if you know how to forage, a sumptuous feast can be found in the wild.  We are grateful to our neighbors, knowledgeable foragers and, apparently, not susceptible to poison ivy, for sharing their spoils:

The wild foods above include, clockwise from left to right, lambsquarter, morels, ramps, and winecap mushrooms.


  1. Oh Yes, Poison Ivy.
    Four things I remember:
    1. With increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere the toxin in poison ivy has become much more toxic and the plants much more vigorous
    2. I am therefore glad that I do not seem to catch the itch very easily. As a child I never worried about it although I must have come in contact with it on a regular basis growing up in farm and field. As a teen I confirmed this insensitivity, much to my joy, after visiting an area where my gal friend and I had bedded down for a few hours in the romantic darkness of a lakeside clearing the night before. Poison ivy alright, mashed and flattened where we lay, but not so much as a pimple did erupt. Joy entire!
    3. I once read a credible report that the clay used in underarm deodorant was the perfect binder for the urushiol oil.
    4. A friend used hot - nearly scalding - water around the perimeter of the itch in what he claimed was a successful treatment. I always wondered if it was a variation of the John Madden Football Injury Premise, that you can only feel pain at one place at a time!

  2. Am I the only one who started unconsciously scratching while reading this? :)

    As a kid, I spent a lot of time in different woodsy settings and never really caught a bad case of poison ivy, but as an adult, I am still very wary of it. Fortunately my current nemesis is thistleweed, not poison ivy.

    I hope you are feeling better these days. Thanks for the photo of the edibles, I have not seen any ramps yet at the Farmer's Market.

  3. I sympathize with you - and echo WOS - hope you're totally healed now.

    That last pic looks like the makings of a great meal - yum!

    I've never encountered poison ivy, poison oak, or even thistleweed - as far as I know. But here in Florida, we're very careful to avoid fire ants. Still manage to get bitten by them a couple of times a year, though. They're tricky little beggars!

  4. No poison ivy, oak or sumac in Hawaii however we get the nasty mites and other microbes...also inconvenient. I recall a bout with Poison Oak in high school but no mention of Native Indian remedies…probably a toxic man made salve that did the trick.

    I am sending you healing purple bubbles (new age remedy) that the itching and other related symptoms cease!

  5. Ah, nature red in tooth and claw--and urushiol!

    Anon: Interesting about the effect of CO2, and enjoyed, as always, your stories and fascinating facts. As for the scalding water treatment, know it well, and I would agree it's an example of the John Madden Football Injury Premise.

    WOS, CA, JM: Thanks for the good wishes and your additions to the "red in tooth and claw" catalog of thistleweed, fire ants, and mites. May we avoid them all!

  6. I never want to get poison ivy because I know I won't be able to resist scratching (& therefore spreading it)!

    The other day I was with a friend in the city walking by the seminary on West 21st Street admiring roses & other plants spilling out over the fences. Two tourists came along & urged us to back away: "That's all poison ivy there!" one cried, then indicated a vine with toothed leaves. "I just learned--I'll tell you how to know it's poison ivy: it has THREE leaves," she continued, charmingly well meaning.

    We smiled & thanked her, & as soon as the pair was out of earshot I remarked to my friend, "That isn't poison ivy."

    "I know!"

    We burst out laughing.


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