One rare June day
a golfer, whom we shall call Speedy Hands, duck-hooked a drive into the verdant
rough that borders the 14th hole of a certain central Pennsylvania golf course.
Following the erratic course of the tee shot, Speedy came to a small patch of
woody-stemmed weeds. He gingerly circumvented this herbage and, 20 yards beyond
it, found his ball.
cannot be verified, since Speedy was obscured by underbrush from the other
members of the foursome. However, there were at least two results of his
wilderness trip—both of them unpleasant. Speedy took a double bogey on the 14th
and three days later took to his bed, his hands, arms, stomach, chest and face
covered with singularly unattractive-looking, excruciatingly itchy sores, his
eyes swollen shut, his head throbbing and his peace of mind absolutely
That there was a
direct connection between the duck hook and Speedy's infirmities was
established when, after 10 days or so, he was up and around with his foursome
again. The weed patch through which his ball had rolled was definitely
identified as poison ivy (Rhus radicans), a fact that Speedy, who had had
previous disastrous experiences with this malevolent plant, claimed he had
known all along. "That's why I walked clear around the stuff," griped
Speedy. "There must have been some juice on the ball. It's the only way I
could have got it."
lost Speedy whatever sympathy his suffering had earned him, for the seminar
immediately turned to the consideration of what Speedy was doing picking up his
ball in the rough?
Except for its
metaphysical aspects (was this an example of wrongdoing being immediately
punished by a higher power?), Speedy's experience was not mysterious. Owing to
the curious and sinister properties of poison ivy, it is quite possible, indeed
probable, that Speedy's ball, hooking through the ivy, had picked up enough of
the plant's "juice" (technically speaking, a phenol substance called
urushiol) to have poisoned him when he, in turn, picked up the ball.
Furthermore, from his hands the toxic substance could easily have been spread
to other parts of the body, accounting for his general debility. What happened
to Speedy is what can happen this summer to those millions of Americans—about
50% of the population—who are allergic to poison ivy and suffer from its
attendant condition, rhus dermatitis.
Because it is
common and theoretically avoidable, and because a man with the itch is
undignified, poison-ivy poisoning tends to be something of a joke affliction,
comparable to slipping on a banana peel or hitting your thumb with a hammer.
However, rhus dermatitis can incapacitate and disfigure, and even mild cases
are irritating as the devil. The truth is that poison ivy jokes are always a
lot funnier when somebody else is scratching. Also it is best not to laugh too
loudly, for the chances are about 3 to 1 that you may be scratching one
As a matter of
record, the first admitted victim was that notable sport, Captain John Smith.
Smith, writing in 1609, does not describe the circumstances in which he first
encountered the noxious plant (and in those times the rule was that a gentleman
never told), but he does have something to say about the results of meeting up
with it. "The poisonous weed, being in shape but little different from our
English yvie, but being touched causeth redness, itching and lastly
blysters...because for a time they are somewhat painful and in aspect dangerous
it hath itselfe an ill name."
This has more or
less remained the story ever since. From John Smith to Speedy Hands there has
been a veritable chorus which has had reason to call this plant by a variety of
Poison ivy is
such a formidable outdoor antagonist partly because it is one of the sneakiest
plants existent, being among other things a master at disguise. The leaves may
be oblong or round, scalloped or smooth-edged, waxy or dull in texture.
Occasionally leaves of markedly different style will be found growing on the
same stalk. Ivy may grow as a vine, from the size of a morning glory creeper to
great hairy ropes that are thick as a hawser. It may spread along the ground
like spurge or wintergreen, shoot up as a scrubby bush or even be found as a
free-standing tree 10 feet or higher.
Ivy also grows in
many places, thriving from the seashore to elevations of 6,000 feet, from
beyond the Mexican and Canadian borders. About the only environmental
restriction is that it does not do well where the annual rainfall is less than