by Lorraine Cherry, Friends of West 11th Street Park
“Leaves of three, let it be.” That old saying sums up the most recognizable thing about poison ivy: its three leaflets. The smooth leaves are a glossy or dull green, changing color to red in autumn.
Poison ivy can grow as a low, non-woody plant, an upright 3-foot-tall shrub, or a woody vine that can resemble a hairy rope with tendrils that attach to the tree trunk. It has small greenish flowers in the spring that mature into white waxy berries in the fall. All parts of poison ivy are toxic to humans. In addition to “Leaves of three, let it be,” you should also remember: “Hairy rope, don’t be a dope,” and “Berries white, take flight.” The rash that can result from being exposed to poison ivy is no fun.
Many wild birds and animals do not seem to be affected by the toxins in poison ivy, making it a valuable food source in the forest environment. The berries are a popular food for songbirds during fall migration and in winter when other foods are scarce. Downy woodpeckers, robins, and catbirds especially like the berries. Small mammals like cottontail rabbits and opossums browse on the poison ivy foliage, twigs and berries.
Because poison ivy is such a rich natural food source, no effort is made at West 11th Street Park or in other natural areas in Texas to eradicate it entirely from the site. But for the convenience of park users, we try to keep it back from the main trail. Working with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Houston Parks Board, our goal is to spray every year for poison ivy along the edges of the main ½-mile loop trail inside the park.
Unfortunately, this has been a crazy year with regard to weather and to scheduling. City regulations prohibit private individuals from spraying chemicals in city parks, so all spraying must be contracted through a city-approved vendor. With the extended heavy rains we had during the peak of the growing season, there was just no one available to do the work. While we could possibly still get something in line for October or November, we’re rapidly approaching the time when the plants will begin to go dormant and the spray won’t be as effective.
In any case, here are the two major things you can do to protect yourself and your family from an unfortunate encounter with poison ivy:
You need to make sure you know what poison ivy looks like, and there’s no better way to do this than to actually examine it growing in the wild. Stop #7 on the Wireless Wilderness tour is located at a patch of poison ivy just inside the park off of Shelterwood. Take a good look, and listen to the recording that talks about it. Take the kids along, so that they will recognize it, too.
Don’t bring poison ivy home with you! Not that you would really do that, of course, but that’s what happens when your dogs are running loose and get toxic oils from poison ivy on their fur. You can’t see it, but when you pet your dog and then rub your skin or touch your face, you may be in trouble. So it’s a good idea to keep your animals under control and on the trail.