Rogue Shoe Butler

12 Aug 2020

Poison Ivy Myth

Some poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) growing intertwined with another vine, probably Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

This video, “Herbalist Jim Mcdonald praises poison ivy at the International Herb Symposium”, recounts a myth, said to have emerged in multiple primitive societies, to explain why poison ivy exists:

Long ago, man stopped paying attention to the world and moved his attention inward, to his own thoughts, oblivious to the life around him. Thus man stopped asking plants permission before harvesting them, and he stopped his prayers of gratitude after hunting an animal, and he began to view the world as nothing but stuff for him to take. So all the plants held a council in the center of the Earth where all their roots meet, and asked the Creator, “What are we going to do about this youngest child of the Earth? When they were young, they were so alive and aware and curious, and now they’re merely taking and destroying without noticing what they’re doing.”

The Creator thought about it, and the next morning a new plant grew upon the Earth: poison ivy. It grew everywhere: on the ground, climbing up trees, as a bush. The pain from this new plant helped man bring his attention back to his surroundings. Now whenever man becomes oblivious to the Earth, he soon steps in or walks through poison ivy, and his awareness of the plants that he lives from and among is restored.

Of course that never really happened, and I think everyone knows that, even in societies that take the myth seriously. But oddly enough, I recently learned the basics of edible and medicinal weeds, which led me to perceive the world “afresh”, with much greater awareness of plant life, to which I’d been almost completely oblivious, and this was in fact triggered by poison ivy.

When I was tentatively starting to clear the vines from my maple tree and the weeds from the garden area in my backyard, I noticed that I’d sometimes have an itchy spot on my hand or leg afterward. I wanted to be sure that I got rid of all poison ivy, so I started googling to learn how to identify it. That took me about two weeks, actually. There were a number of look-alike plants that I had to learn to distinguish, at various phases of growth. A few examples: on a new vine, some Virginia creeper leaves have only three leaflets; a friend helped me identify false strawberry (with “leaves of three”) growing in my lawn—and I learned the look of its flower and the taste of its berry; I learned that box elder maple seedlings have leaves of three in the poison-ivy configuration but they’re soon followed by more leaflets; sumac is another tree like that; and I learned to distinguish leaves of three that aren’t in the right configuration.

Then I got curious about the very tall weed that I’d started to take down. Thus I learned about pokeweed, which is highly toxic but also medicinal and even edible when cooked correctedly. It took me a couple more weeks, but I finally worked up the confidence to cook it, and found that it’s actually delicious—better than most greens from the grocery store. Further googling revealed that it’s highly nutritious, too (gram for gram, roughly comparable to spinach). In low doses, such as one gets from eating one berry, supposedly its toxins are anti-inflammatory, stopping joint pain; it might even stop the pain I’m getting using the mouse. (I’m not yet confident enough to test that hypothesis.) I began to notice pokeweed growing everywhere, not just in my backyard. And of course I stopped pulling it down. I had been annoyed that these huge weeds had been pulling nutrition out of the soil where I had wanted to plant vegetables, but I was having too much difficulty concentrating to plant anything in the Spring. And it turns out, these weeds were in fact my vegetable garden—self-planted vegetables that never needed watering. I was oblivious to them, even trying to destroy them, just like man in the myth.

While taking work breaks needed because of my difficulties concentrating, I often watched YouTube videos. YouTube began recommending videos about other kinds of weeds, based on my watching videos about poison ivy and pokeweed. Before long, I came to recognize plantain—just in time to treat my toothache—and a couple other common weeds, such as ground ivy (creeping charlie), lamb’s quarters, and lamb’s ear. All three of those have recently become teas or side dishes in my kitchen.

And now, wherever I walk, I no longer just see “grass” or “fields”, I see plantain, ground ivy, etc., aware of their uses, their phases of life, and how they fit into the whole ecosystem. And I also see poison ivy. It’s everywhere.