Posted September 26, 2023
Given the horribly itchy rash that poison ivy can cause, it’s no wonder that this plant is loathed by many. I, too, have experienced the severe discomfort an encounter with poison ivy can bring, but I certainly don’t hate it. It would be more accurate to say that I respect poison ivy. Although poison ivy often gets a bad rap, and I may not be able to convince you to actually like it, here are seven reasons not to hate poison ivy.
1. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is native. Unlike actual invasive plants, like porcelain berry, Japanese knotweed, Asiatic bittersweet and the common reed (Phragmites australis), while poison ivy may be successful and a little aggressive, it has been in New England a lot longer than we have. It is an important part of the native ecosystem.
2. More than 60 species of birds, from song birds to woodpeckers to game birds, feed on the berry-like drupes produced by poison ivy. In fact, I once came across a tree wrapped up in a fruit-laden poison ivy vine that was serving as an avian feast. In just a couple minutes, I saw a hairy woodpecker, two yellow-rumped warblers and a tufted titmouse stop by for a meal. These fruits are especially important in the winter when other food is scarce.
3. Poison ivy can help promote mindfulness. I can imagine people at this point thinking, “Is she crazy?” But hear me out here. If you’re lost in conversation or staring at your phone or even just mentally ruminating on tomorrow’s to-do list as you wander down a trail, it’s quite possible that you’ll unintentionally brush up against some poison ivy. However, if you move through the environment mindfully, paying attention to where you step and what you touch, noticing the differences in individual plants as you go, you’re much more likely to see it, notice it and avoid it (in addition to noticing a myriad of other things as well!).
4. Its foliage is quite attractive. Newly emerged leaves in the spring are bright red and shiny. And in the fall, poison ivy leaves are often some of the brightest fall colors, with an array of reds, oranges and yellows.
5. Although rarely classified this way, I would argue that poison ivy is a wildflower. Although each individual flower is quite small, the clusters of five-petaled flowers produced in the spring are quite attractive if inspected closely. They also serve as a source of pollen and nectar for many insects.
6. It helps control unwanted pedestrian traffic in coastal dunes and other sensitive habitats. People may ignore “Stay on the trail” or “Stay off the dune” signs, but its rare that someone will knowingly traipse through a patch of poison ivy.
7. It’s impressively versatile. Poison ivy can take on a variety of growth forms depending on the habitat and conditions present. It can stay low to the ground, appearing almost like a small herbaceous plant. It can grow as a climbing vine, with the main stem occasionally reaching a diameter close to the size of my arm. And in some instances, particularly in salt marshes and coastal dunes, it can actually grow as a dense woody shrub.
So, perhaps I haven’t convinced you to love poison ivy. But hopefully I’ve provided a few positives for you to consider the next time you’re contemplating eradicating it from your property.
Written by Elise Leduc-Fleming, WLT Executive Director