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Look Before You Leap

Old adages, by definition, become so because they contain useful advice that lasts the test of time. Though they sometimes seem cliché or old fashioned, I enjoy these tidbits of wisdom which have managed to be passed down through the years: Actions speak louder than words. All that glitters is not gold. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

While I’m smart enough to see the wisdom in these old sayings, there’s one that I will admit that I haven’t seemed to have learned from: Look before you leap. If I see something interesting, I generally barrel full-steam ahead. This summer, it seems, I’ve done quite a bit of leaping – into big patches of poison ivy.


If you spend any time outdoors, you know that you run the risk of finding poison ivy. And the negative effects it can produce are really only a problem for us humans. Poison ivy is actually an important source of food for wildlife, and it provides cover for all kinds of nesting creatures. However much I may not like it myself.

If you visit the Preserve, you can usually avoid poison ivy exposure by wearing closed toe shoes and pants. If you are coming for a work day, I always advise long sleeves and gloves, and hand washing. I have a coworker who has pronounced my scratching an occupational hazard. And while I am certainly getting more fun time in the outdoors working at Foxfield, I wonder if that is all there is to it. It seems to me that we have a bumper crop growing out there.

Observing my most recent unsightly rash and absent-minded scratching, a volunteer at TWC suggested I read a recent blog published a few years ago discussing research on the effect of increased levels of CO2 in the air on the growth of poison ivy.

University of Georgia assistant professor Jacqueline Mohan and her colleagues conducted studies at the Duke University Forest comparing the size of poison ivy plants grown in different open-air plots, with several exposed to elevated levels of CO2. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, reported that while tree saplings grown in the elevated CO2 conditions grew 8 to 12% larger than those grown in today’s CO2 conditions, poison ivy plants grew a stunning 149% larger.

Additional studies of CO2 and poison ivy were performed in the laboratory, lead by Dr. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Findings published in 2007 in the journal Weed Science showed that not only was the plant bigger when grown in more CO2, but it had more leaves, and higher concentrations of urushiol — the toxic chemical that causes allergic contact dermatitis. So there wouldn’t only be more of it to brush against, but it would likely be more potent?!

I have to say that while in the throws of an ivy rash outbreak, this research was a bit disheartening. Sure, I can tell myself that poison ivy is an important food source for wildlife, and its vines create a shelter for many nesting creatures. And yes, there’s a voice in my head telling me that perhaps I will finally have to learn to move with care. I’ll have to stop rushing over to look at that flower/bird/butterfly with carefree abandon and be even more aware of my surroundings. Maybe that will be a good thing. Maybe I’ll notice even more of the world around me; see things I’ve been missing. Or maybe this is just another, much more selfish motivation for me in the fight to reduce carbon emission. Most importantly, though, is that this may be an indicator that I should start looking for calamine lotion in bulk.