As the days shorten and the nights cool, the woodlands of Oakland County are transforming into kaleidoscopes of color. Golden hues of sugar maple, the deep crimsons of sassafras and the scarlet-red shades of red maple are the dominant colors on nature’s autumn palette. However, there is one troublesome plant that hides in the showy mix, a plant dressed in alluring shades of red: Poison Ivy.
Poison ivy follows a color transition pattern each season. This transition happens as quickly, and as reliably, as the ruby-throated hummingbirds deciding it’s time to leave the nectar feeder and head south to Florida, Cuba and points beyond. Hummingbirds are on the move and poison ivy is no longer green. Toxicodendron radicans is now red with tinges of yellow and draws attention to itself with brilliance. Birds flock to the plant to feast on the tiny, yellowish-white berries. Curious humans come close for a better look at this mystery plant that seemed to appear overnight and often clings to the sunny side of trees. The truth of the matter is, for many people, poison ivy dressed in red is as foreign and as unknown as its scientific name, Toxicodendron radicans.
The potency of poison ivy and its ability to cause an itching, oozing, crusty and sometimes painful rash remains as strong as ever. Urushiol oil is the liquid that causes the rash. It remains in all parts of the plant, from the drying leaves, to the tree-hugging stems, and the underground roots and berries. Try yanking the vine out by the roots in autumn or the dead of winter and you will get a wicked rash. Nothing has changed about this plant in the days of autumn except for its color and visibility.
So you are immune? Think again. Human sensitivity changes with time, age and exposures. No matter what your past experience may have been with poison ivy, this colorful beauty of fall foliage needs to be avoided. Don’t heed this advice and a visit to a dermatologist may be in store. Burn the plant and the oils that bind with smoke particles can cause respiratory issues that can be serious enough to require an expedited trip to the emergency room.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks Nature Education Writer. Schechterj@oakgov.com
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