Poison ivy challenges Martha’s Vineyard naturalists

— File photo by MV Times File Photo

It’s an attractive, adaptable plant, with distinctive triplets of glossy green leaves. It’s found everywhere on the Vineyard, from swamps to woodland to dry grassland; where it does best, it can grow as a vine or shrub with inch-thick stems. Birds love its berries, and its leaves turn a lovely red in the fall. Poison ivy is a wonderful plant — except for one thing.

The rash it causes itches furiously, and a bad case lingers for weeks or even a month. Some people don’t seem to get poison ivy, but if you think you’re one, I wouldn’t count on that immunity lasting forever. Keep in mind, though, that in order for the plant to cause a rash, its oil needs to come into contact with your skin.

It doesn’t have to do so directly: many of the poison ivy rashes I get are on the hand or arm and probably come from rubbing against a shoe or pant leg that has picked up poison ivy oil. You can also acquire it from the fur of a dog that has romping in poison ivy — one more reason to leave Fido home when you’re out naturalizing — or from the smoke of burning poison ivy. But there’s nothing magical about the stuff: if you can avoid the oil entirely, you avoid the rash.

While a naturalist’s first line of defense against poison ivy, naturally, is noticing it and avoiding it, often that’s not sufficient. Whatever kind of field work one is doing on the Vineyard, sooner later it almost always requires walking through ivy. Sometimes, heaven help you, you have to push through a shoulder-high tangle of the stuff.

Photographing insects, which is something I spend a lot of time doing, poses particular challenges in the ivy department. Getting close to an insect in the wild, and getting a steady camera hold from a good angle for a photograph, often means kneeling or even lying on the ground. If there’s poison ivy where you need to plant your body, you either give up the photograph, or you kneel or lie down. Getting good insect photos is hard; if I can get one lined up, I’ll often risk the ivy.

Fortunately, poison ivy was probably the first plant I learned to identify — my parents wisely saw to that, recognizing early on that they were raising a nature nut. So, like most people who work outdoors a lot, I find that poison ivy registers with me almost unconsciously — I avoid it in the same way that I avoid bumping into walls or tripping on curbs. However big it is, if I can’t pick my way around it, I try to contact the leaves gently, on the assumption that damaged leaves will leak more oil. But like other naturalists, I’ve also developed a routine for keeping the stuff away from my hide, when I can’t avoid it.

The critical thing, I’ve found, is not just wearing robust shoes, high socks, and long pants; it’s also avoiding touching your own clothing, which may have absorbed the oil from crushed leaves. I always double-knot my shoelaces when I’m heading out into the field; I want to avoid walking through ivy, tying my shoe, and then smearing oil onto my face while I’m wiping off sweat. It helps to have a designated pair of “ivy shoes” to wear if you expect to have to wrangle this plant; some people use pull-on rubber boots as an impermeable, easily washed solution. Once you’re home, change out of ivied clothes as soon as possible, and if you’ve really been wallowing in the stuff, your next shower can’t come too soon.

Using these relatively simple methods, I can work routinely in dense patches of poison ivy and rarely get more than a mild case. On the other hand, I have mild cases more or less constantly all summer long. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for the pleasure of learning about the natural world. You may differ; some people are exquisitely sensitive to this plant, and many are less motivated than I about seeking wildlife out. But the point is, most people can find a level of caution that will let them get out into nature and not itch. Much.

You can certainly have a quality outdoor experience on the Island and not have to deal with poison ivy; there’s nothing wrong with watching nature in your back yard, or along well-groomed trails. But generally, wildlife avoids human disturbance. And a lot of the biologically interesting parts of the Island have no easy access. As a naturalist, in other words, you either accept a straitened experience of the Vineyard, or you learn to deal with this widespread annoyance. It’s a plant nobody likes to see, but it’s an inseparable part of the Wild Side.