Poison ivy thrives in the shadow of human activity in New Paltz

Poison ivy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Poison ivy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Not long after he was elected mayor of New Paltz a year ago, Tim Rogers made an off-handed comment that he’d like to see a poison ivy festival in New Paltz. It’s the kind of idea that tends to elicit a horrified reaction in anyone who has felt the aftereffects of a casual brush with this seemingly innocuous plant. That can be accompanied by memories of the pain and itching of that rash, a general unease around plants when one isn’t quite clear what it looks like, or a strong desire to flee the area and call in air strikes.

Forget roses: poison ivy inspires more emotion than possibly any other plant.

While many invasive species threaten to unbalance ecosystems in this area, poison ivy didn’t simply arrive on some explorer’s shoe or nestled in with exotic potted plants from a far-off local. Toxicodendrons radicans is native to the American and Asian continents, and was likely already on these shores when the first human crossed the Bering Strait. Make no mistake, though: this three-leaved, hairy-vined native thrives in the shadow of human activity. Its roots seize upon disturbed earth, such as one creates when laying out a new garden or housing development. Its leaves are primed for exactly the dappled sunlight one finds at the edge of forests, where human commerce has beaten back vegetation which might have overrun it. Its vines are versatile, spreading out to create a ground cover which seems lovely at a distance, or indiscriminately climbing trees and utility poles alike to loom from above. There are other plants which cause similar suffering, but poison ivy reigns supreme in the Northeast. More distressing is the finding by researchers that poison ivy is getting stronger: bigger leaves, with more of the rash-inducing oil, which might even be more potent than in the past. The culprit could be climate change, but scientists haven’t specifically ruled out the possibility that the plant is simply sadistic.


On an early summer day in 2015, a family gathered to picnic in Sojourner Truth Park. Many of those in attendance were from the Bronx, a place where nature is given leave only occasionally to take hold. Some boys kicked a soccer ball around, with one impromptu goal being on the edge of the woods which stretch between the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and its namesake river. Again and again, one or another chased the ball into the undergrowth, oblivious to the peril that awaited them. That’s the terrible truth about poison ivy: its effects don’t manifest until a day or more later, after the urushiol — the active ingredient of agony — has bonded with some cells and triggered an immune response. That’s right: the rash, the blisters, the itching and the burning are actually caused by one’s body destroying the cells corrupted by urushiol, not the chemical itself. People who are unaffected have immune systems operating on less of a hair trigger. A larger dose, however, or multiple exposures over a lifetime can lead to that same misery-inducing sensitivity.


Hotbeds in New Paltz

Sojourner Truth Park and the rail trail are particularly awkward hotbeds of the plant, because it’s illegal under village law, to wit: “It shall be the duty of the owner, lessee or other person in possession or having charge of each and every parcel of land in this Village to keep said parcel free of poison ivy, poison sumac, ragweed, goldenrod and other harmful weeds and rank or noxious vegetation,” according to §124-3 of the village code. Enforcement procedures were repealed in 2002, but whether that was due to lobbying efforts on behalf of the plant or a sense of futility about outlawing it is not immediately clear. Tom Nyquist, who was mayor at the time and keeps extensive records from his tenure, said he could find no reference to what the Village Board may have done, and said, “I can’t imagine what could be done to enforce it. I’ve been trying to remove it from my yard for years and it keeps coming back.” In any case, code enforcement officer Bryant Arms, when he was made aware of the provision, agreed that he’d probably have to write tickets for the village government before he’d be willing to cite private property owners.

With a clear sense of what this plant looks like, it’s on a lot of public and private properties. Just a couple of weeks ago the first leaves were emerging, bright red in color and glistening with urushiol. New leaves are always red, but as they get older, they turn green, less shiny but no less toxic. In fact, there’s no part of the plant which isn’t covered with the stuff, which can also remain active on boots and garden tools for up to a year, just waiting to spring that special surprise. While the leaves can vary from a dark green in very sunny spots to a lighter, mintier hue in the shade, they all bring the same kiss of agony. It’s only when the plant is allowed to climb that it achieves maturity, however: the ropy, hair vines support arching branches which flower and yield white berries, ready to spawn the next generation. Look for it especially at the base of retaining walls bordering sidewalks, in shady dells that would otherwise be inviting on a hot day and anyplace where one’s guard might be lowered enough to bring ruin upon summer.


First encounters

Anton Stewart immigrated to New Paltz from England, but nothing in the citizenship test prepared him for what lurked in his back yard. “I’d never encountered poison ivy before,” he said, and “wasn’t aware that there was a bastard plant that could contaminate you, but it didn’t show any effects for 24 hours or more,” and then, in his words, “you could gladly scratch yourself with a cheese grater!” His tale of woe started like many other. “I was trimming the yew bushes at the store. I had to pretty much push my way into them in order to do the job properly. I didn’t know they were riddled with poison ivy. Two days later I was covered in a rash on my torso, both arms and both legs. Didn’t know about Tecnu at the time [and] tried all sorts of remedies to little or no avail; apparently my body had zero tolerance for it. So when the rash was headed for Mr. Happy, it was felt that I should go visit the doctor and get a cortisone shot. It was also the first time I’d ever been to the doctor’s office in America.”

Stewart’s story recounts details that few people were willing to share on the record. A poison ivy rash can affect any skin on the body, including what’s in very private areas. It typically is spread before the exposure is noticed, by touching affected and unaffected areas in succession, which can give the impression that the rash itself is contagious. Any number of people came forward to share anecdotes about brides who ruined their wedding night with some last-minute gardening the day before the ceremony, trysting teens who remembered a fleeting woodland encounter for weeks afterward and inattentive landscapers who, in a quest to relieve themselves, ultimately found no relief whatsoever. Those kinds of stories are only spoken in hushed whispers, and no one else who was hit below the belt was willing to let a reporter print their name. Poison ivy carries a stigma which can burn long after the rash is abated. It’s not just the shame, either: the feeling of stray itching on the body can last for months after a really bad case.


Identifying poison ivy

While resistance varies, humans are on the whole more susceptible than most other mammals simply due to a lack of protective fur. It’s not unheard of for a pet cat or dog to go traipsing through a patch and then seek snuggles from an unsuspecting biped.

Key to self-protection is the ability to identify poison ivy in all its forms, so as to avoid it. Equally important is knowing what to do if those little leaves have already brushed your thigh. First off, try not to touch anything, even a door handle, with that toxic touch. A thorough washing with soap and water has a very good chance of washing away the offending urushiol before it can set off the body’s alarm bells, but clothing and shoes should also be cleaned.

John Messerschmidt, owner of Accord-based Poison Ivy Patrol Specialty Landscaping, recommends Mean Green Power Hand Scrub as “your primary defense strategy,” because it can be effective even after the itch sets in. When it persists, though, his go-to remedy is Zanfel, available at drug stores, to cut the suffering. “Remember that you can be spreading poison ivy around before you know you have it,” he writes on his web site. “The longer you wait to rub any of these products on, the more severe your rash will be!”


Excuse for a party?

For all the suffering that can result, poison ivy is actually a pleasant-enough looking plant, as photogenic as many species in and around the Hudson Valley. It’s simply the killer combination of development near forested areas that makes it run rampant in New Paltz. That’s also why Rogers’ throwaway idea to celebrate the stuff might not be daft: members of the arts community could find beautiful ways to remind residents what lurks beneath and above, funds could be raised to hire professionals to remove it from local parks, and having some fun at the expense of this plant — for a change — could well keep yet another college student from getting a rash simply because they didn’t know it was climbing up the tree next to the trash can outside their rental home.

There’s precedent for communities creating festivals out of unpleasant things that normally drive away tourists: black flies are the focus of a surprising number of events. New Paltz may not have more poison ivy than other communities nearby, but it appears that no one else has tried to use it as an excuse for a party. If that includes any kind of baking contest, however, this reporter is opting out.