sweet and sour for summer

Young poison ivy and raspberry leaves.
Young poison ivy and raspberry leaves.

Two native plants indicative of summer grow together in Western Pennsylvania, and you’ll find them along the trails at Whiskey Point as well as other similar places along trails and at the edge of woods.

One provides a sweet treat, though, while the other provides only itching agony—so be careful of the poison ivy leaves when you reach for those tempting burgundy berries!

When I was young I walked from the back of Scott Park to the hillside that is now Whiskey Point, also visiting the farm at the bottom of the hill and the pony in the old stable, even poking around the abandoned farmhouse on the hillside above, both now gone. This land had been cleared for farming or development and was in the process of regrowth as was much land in the area at that time, a prime condition for our opportunistic and fast-growing natives.

They’ll show up in cleared areas in the first summer after clearing, growing along the edges of the cleared area and spreading quickly because of the sunlight, putting down roots intending to stay once taller plants and trees grow around them. Both plants are perennials and once established develop extensive root systems from which shoots can spring up several feet away. Once they’re in place, there’s not much you can do, and our wooded areas are full of them—as is the area under my neighbor’s trees that isn’t cut too often, which proves they’re not particular about where they’ll grow if the conditions are right.

But avoiding poison ivy is no reason to avoid trails and natural areas. Like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the leaves of both young plants in early summer look enough alike to be confused since they are about the same size, shape and color and grow in clusters of three, and most of us remember the old adage: “Leaves of three, let it be.”

Raspberry leaves are a slightly darker shade of green and have serrated edges, plus the stems, and even the undersides of some leaves, have thorns which are tiny but present when they are young. The plant also tends to grow in a clump with several unbranched canes of varying lengths sprouting from one central point. Young green berries are evident right now, in June.

Poison ivy leaves, even when young, have smooth edges and tend to be a lighter green than other plants around, and the plant is most commonly a vine which grows along the ground and twines up anything it can find, though it will sometimes form an upright plant like a bush or small tree, but it never has thorns. Berries are white and don’t appear until later in the year.

I thought it unfair when I was little and saw that I had to reach past poison ivy leaves to get my June treat, but I learned that I’m one of the fewer than 10% of people who don’t get an immediate reaction to poison ivy and I often won’t develop an apparent rash at all, but when I clear out my gardens and along my fences in spring by pulling the plant I’ll get a rash if I pull out enough of it—no one is free of poison ivy sensitivity.

It’s the “urushiol oil” in the plant that contains the irritant, and this can be found in all parts of the plant, including the roots. You can be exposed by touching the plant yourself, and also by touching your clothing which may have come in contact with the plant, even by petting your dog who may have run through it in the woods and happily carried it back on his fur.

Washing and rinsing an affected area immediately after exposure can help to reduce the effects of the oil, but it must be done with a substance that can dissolve the oil and it must be rinsed away in order to be effective, so waterless cleaners and wipes that many people carry on a hike today are apparently not too effective because they don’t dissolve oils.

Raspberries, on the other hand, offer only pleasure eaten fresh or made into a pastry or a preserve—except for those pesky thorns, or course.

In July you’ll see our other native berry, the blackberry, but while it grows together with blackberries as well, the matured poison ivy leaves and stems are more easily distinguished from blackberries.

Bear in mind that both berries are an important food source for our native birds (which is how the plants are often spread, but that’s another story), so it’s best to leave them on the bush and buy them from a local farmer.

If you still find it hard to tell poison ivy from berries or other plants, just stay on the trail, which is kept clear by the Scott Conservancy, and avoid any plant that has three leaflets. My favorite source for information about poison ivy is on the internet at www.poisonivy.aesir.com/view/welcome.html

Written for the Scott Conservancy's June 2009 newsletter. I hope to write a timely wildflower article for each upcoming newsletter.

For more wildflowers, please visit my photo galleries under Nature: flora. I've been cataloging my travels along local trails, trying to catch each group of wildflowers as they appear.

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