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.
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.
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.