Devil's Advocate: A Defense of Poison Ivy

"It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature."

—Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy

It occurred to me recently that poison ivy was the only native plant I was trying to annihilate from my property. Without much thought, I included it in my eradication plan along with invasive weeds like Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle. These non-native shrubs, privet and Asian honeysuckle, crowd out native plants, disrupt ecosystems, and most ecologists agree with the benefits of removing them.

Until a few weeks ago, my hatred for poison ivy was so fierce it was the only plant I was spraying with herbicide. Then, this summer, a friend spotted a mated pair of red-headed woodpeckers, in their bright executioner hoods, eating poison ivy berries near her camp at Bonnaroo. This image of something beautiful eating something poison took me aback. I began to read and really think about this "poison" plant and its place in Tennessee's ecology.

Poison ivy is not, like I assumed, a wasteland, as is a plastic bag in the ocean or bleach down the drain. The co-evolution of plants, insects, birds, and other animals is significant, and natives depend on each other to survive. Songbirds eat poison ivy berries, bees feed on the nectar in the flowers, rabbits and deer nibble the leaves. Many animals are not bothered by the urushiol, the substance in the sap that causes an itchy skin rash in most humans. The dimorphic macalla moth depends on poison ivy leaves as a host plant during its caterpillar stage, when it is known as the "poison ivy caterpillar."

A bright patch of highly cultivated flowers with little nectar, like impatiens, might as well be painted cardboard for the use they are to wildlife. I will try to find beauty in things useful to others—tiny pale flowers rich in nectar, leggy stems, glossy edible leaves.

The leaves are going red now, in the cool weather. Like a coral snake, the plant's beauty lies partly in its danger; the red stem, the red coil. It pricks my attention, makes me fall back. I can admire it from over here.

Poison ivy doesn't much like the shade, it grows on the edges of the woods. Today the woods are more fragmented than they were when Europeans first arrived. Today there are more ragged edges of forest, and thus more poison ivy. Poison ivy thrives on disturbed land. It feeds wildlife and enriches the soil, preparing the way for other plants to grow. In this way, it is a healer.

An herbalist friend calls it a protector, a guardian, keeping meddlesome humans out of the forest. I must mention how this idea is extrapolated on in the Batman comic books and movies in which the villainous Poison Ivy, dangerous to humans, is a champion of Mother Nature. Even here, Poison Ivy's evil is complicated.

In "Eternal Youth," 16th episode of Batman: The Animated Series aired in the early '90s, Poison Ivy threatens a woman with some kind of chemical gun.

"You're wicked!" the woman shrieks, "Evil!"

"Evil, Mrs. Thomas?" Poison Ivy replies, "I don't control a company that leveled a 1,000-year-old forest for a strip mine. That's evil."

Yeah, right? The girl has a point.

Before I get smug in my defense, I must remember I am so allergic to poison ivy that serious reactions have sent me to the hospital many times for steroid shots. One such bad experience convinced me to pursue a major in English, and all its cozy indoor reading, leaving behind my botany major, and all its thrashing around in the undergrowth of UT's research forest. I know what poison ivy looks like, and I avoid it. It is not for me. Poison ivy keeps one cautious and humble.

It's worthwhile to imagine making places that are inconvenient to your tame life, but perfect for wild things. Consider leaving an out-of-the-way area in your naturescape where poison ivy is allowed to grow, and nourish the moths and the birds.