Killer Plants

I’VE ALWAYS liked plants, but now they are trying to kill me.

I recently contracted poison something-or-other — ivy or oak or Virginia Creeper, which, despite its innocent reputation, can be plenty toxic if you are a sensitive individual, the Internet tells me. Apparently I qualify as an empath.

I was not rubbing my face nor my nether regions in the forest undergrowth or scything my way through the jungle. I was weeding my own urban garden on a busy corner in Uptown, minding my own horticultural business. I know my way around a garden, and I know the poison ivy chant (“Leaves of three, Let it be”). But depending on the time of the season and a variety of other factors, poison ivy can sometimes have three or five leaves, be lobed or toothed or smooth-edge, be green or red. A gardener might be forgiven for grabbing the wrong weed.

And apparently I did. Suddenly, up my arm, blisters formed in a line, as if I had been whipped by a whippy thing. Fwappo.

Over two weeks, it bubbled and blistered and itched maddeningly. If I wasn’t scratching I was thinking of scratching, dreaming of scratching, telling myself to stop scratching, and plotting how to start scratching again. I froze it with ice. I held it under fiercely hot water just to turn the itch off for a minute. I slathered it with anti-itch potions, including a few I made up out of desperation. Miracle Whip, by the way, is not particularly effective. I Googled “leprosy.”

Finally, I went to the doctor for steroids and compassion.

“Yup,” he said. “Something got you. You can get contact dermatitis from any number of plants.” Any number? All these years as a gardener, I thought plants were my friends. “Oh, poison stuff is all over the place,” he reported cheerfully. “Say! It might be wild parsnip! That stuff’s cropping up everywhere.”

Search the Internet for “wild parsnip” and you get an image of a leg that looks like you never want your leg to look. Wild parsnip behaves as if it’s from an alien planet: it rubs sap on you, then waits alone, chuckling, knowing that hours later, when you expose your skin to sunshine, the sap will be activated and deliver a chemical burn that can damage your skin for two years. How creepy is that? A plant that doesn’t hurt you while you’re near it and threatening its survival, but smears goo on you in a passive aggressive way that will hurt you only later when you’re out of the hood.

Poison ivy, oak, and Virginia Creeper work in another way. Their oil contains urushiol, a dreadful substance that binds with skin cells, creating rashes and oozing blisters. Ingest the tiniest bit of urushiol or breathe in the fumes of burning plants and you could be planted to death.

Urushiol lingers on garden implements and clothes for years. Grab an old rake Grandpa used to clear the back 40 in 1956 and you might regret it. One-hundred-year-old plant specimens have caused rashes. Two micrograms or less can cause a reaction in a sensitive person; insensitive persons, bad drivers, and people who are mean to dogs might require 50 micrograms before breaking out, but that’s still an amount smaller than one grain of salt. A plop of urushiol the size of a pinhead can send 500 people to the medicine chest searching for the calamine.

So why is the Pentagon not mining urushiol for our national defense? It is literally free for the taking. Who needs missile silos in South Dakota? In one Kate Spade handbag, we could store enough to spray all the inhabitants of the Milky Way.

It would be, pardon me for saying, a very green weapon — natural in the nastiest possible way and a threat to skin but not to ecosystems. No spy planes or stealth satellites needed to find weapons of mass destruction in hosta beds. Just a handful of trowel-wielding women in large-brimmed hats.

Take that, Halliburton.

This was published in the Southwest Journal August 20, 2012.

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