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Beware of the itchy outdoors
Bil Gilbert
June 19, 1967
In summer, bird watchers, picnickers and golfers who hook tee shots all face a common danger—poison ivy, a plant that can ruin a vacation
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June 19, 1967

Beware Of The Itchy Outdoors

In summer, bird watchers, picnickers and golfers who hook tee shots all face a common danger—poison ivy, a plant that can ruin a vacation

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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.

What followed 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 destroyed.

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."

This explanation 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 day.

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 ill names.

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 10 inches.

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