Poison Ivy is Taking Over

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I have an irrational phobia of poison ivy. I’ve never had poison ivy, which means that it’s theoretically possible I’m not even allergic, though I doubt that. It’s just that poison ivy and its toxins seem terrifying to me.

So I always assumed it was just my paranoia when I noticed that poison ivy is everywhere, and in a bad way. While it’s not that uncommon to see it as a short plan with three leaves, I’ve noticed that the entirety of the Interstate Highway System, or at least the 50 miles I spend on it, is covered with a mass of poison ivy that is overtaking rocks and vegetation, and, in places, growing as tall as I am. (“Growing as high as I am,” as I initially wrote, seems to lead to a different conclusion about why I’m terrified of poison ivy, incidentally.)

BoingBoing posted in April that poison ivy really is taking over. With increased CO2 emissions, Satan’s plant is able to not only grow more quickly and larger, but also to produce more toxins. In other words, it’s bigger and badder.

Their most recent post about this mankind-dooming discovery includes something that looks like it’s straight out of a mad scientist’s laboratory, or perhaps a science-fiction horror movie about super-fertilized poison ivy. CO2 seems to be a sort of catalyst to poison ivy, the sort of unfair advantage you might read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The higher levels of CO2 help the poison ivy grow larger leaves, which, in turn, allow it to process more sunlight, which, in turn, allows it to grow even bigger.

The Forestry Service has an interesting page on poison ivy, too. Poison ivy seems to be a favorite food of white-tailed deer, for example. They’re not affected by it. (If we prohibit hunting white-tailed deer for a few years, is it possible that they will become plentiful enough to eradicate poison ivy?) It’s deliberately planted in the Netherlands to keep dikes from eroding. (And here I thought I wanted to move to the Netherlands…) It’s supposedly planted in gardens because some people find the leaves, with their red color in the autumn, to be pleasing to the eye. (Others of us find it horrifying to the eye.)

The Forestry Service page also mentions that “[i]ngested leaves do not confer immunity,” debunking a myth that I’m pretty sure does not actually exist at all. Other studies have found that, when it’s soaked in wastewater (i.e., sewage), the growth of poison ivy was not affected. It is also somewhat tolerant of floods. It even seems okay with fires, because its roots can extend deep enough to not be considerably affected. They do note a perhaps-unsurprising conclusion, that burning poison ivy after it has already been treated with an herbicide will decrease the odds of it returning. In other words, if you kill it and then set it on fire, there’s a chance that it won’t regrow. (But note that setting it on fire is generally an awful idea, since the oil can be turned into a vapor; also, fire-damaged poison ivy seems to grow back more densely, according to the Forestry Service. Ergo, you may apply poison-ivy killer, and, when it’s dead, set it on fire. But then you’ll breath in the vaporized oil, getting poison ivy in your throat, and the poison ivy will just grow back stronger next year.)

There is hope, however. The Forestry Service mentions Pileolaria shiraiana, a parasitic rust affecting poison ivy. Hopefully, President Obama will take this up as one of his next priorities.

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