Beauty, benefit of a much maligned plant

Beauty, benefit of a much maligned plant

Back at the beginning of October, my conservation district colleagues and I played host to a phalanx of fifth-graders at one of our favorite outdoor venues, Barnes Preserve near Wooster.

Taking a “divide and conquer” approach, we split the horde into smaller groups of manageable size and rotated them through meadow, wetland and forest habitats and a fun and active learning station that was all about the life of trees. I led the forest exploration, which, particularly on a sunny day in early fall, was like skipping work altogether and going for a walk in the woods with 25 junior naturalists.

The best part of an expedition with a mess of 9- and 10-year-olds is they are at the perfect age for inspiration and discovery. The kids are old enough to wonder deeply about things and young enough to not yet feel awkwardly embarrassed to ask questions. Cynicism has yet to creep into their world, and nearly everything seems to pique and hold the kids’ collective interest. The experience reminded me of what inspired me to become a student of nature in the first place. There’s always something new to discover.

One thing the kids seemed to marvel over was my own admitted affection for one of the most dreaded plants in the forest: poison ivy. I had set the kids up by asking whether they knew what the plant looked like and whether they could point it out. “Leaves of three, then let it be” was the chimed chorus among the group, but beyond that, many of the children weren’t exactly sure what they were looking for.

We stood in a spot with a clear view of a distant snag of white ash that was lit like a torch from ground to sky with the yellow and crimson of a monstrous poison ivy vine. When I asked them to point to the most beautiful thing they could see from that spot, they invariably chose that same tree.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “You’ve just positively identified poison ivy.”

The kids were in awe. It’s impossible to deny the beauty of autumn poison ivy, especially as it stands juxtaposed to the still predominantly green foliage of early October in Ohio. My admiration for the plant doesn’t stop with looks, however, as poison ivy for all its itchy-scratchy badness is an important native species that holds an important ecological place in the natural world of the Midwest. Incredibly adaptable and able to gain a foothold nearly anywhere, it’s just as likely to present itself as a carpet of groundcover as a giant, hairy vine. In between it happily fills space as an understory shrub.

As far as poison ivy’s bad rap, I can tell you from long and painful experience that it deserves at least a handful of harsh words, but my overriding message to the kids was the plant and its ripe white berries play a key role in feeding some of their favorite forest friends, from chipmunks and song birds all the way to the white-tailed deer. In fact, humans are among the only creatures adversely affected by the irritating urushiol produced by the plant.

To know poison ivy may surely not be to love it, but understanding its valuable place in the ecosystem reminds us of all we can learn from a walk in the autumn woods.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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