Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Unexpected—and for many people still unwelcome—color

with 33 comments

Toxicodendron radicans; click for greater sharpness.

When I was traipsing around the grounds of Laguna Gloria on the foggy morning of December 9, I found myself surrounded at times by some healthy (for the plants) stands of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. This prolific native species spends most of the year blending in with the rest of the greenery, but in the fall its leaflets are inclined to turn colors and become patterned in intriguing ways; you see one such leaflet here. What most people think about when they hear the term “fall color” is maples, oaks, flameleaf sumacs, cedar elms and various other trees, but the often lowly though much-scorned and much-feared poison ivy, like the skin-rending greenbrier, gets to play the game too.

It occurs to me that many of you outside the United States and Canada probably aren’t familiar with this noxious native plant of ours; if that’s the case, you may want to read a Wikipedia article about it. For a clickable map showing the many places in the United States and Canada where Toxicodendron radicans makes people’s skin turn red, itch, and even blister, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 7, 2012 at 5:04 AM

33 Responses

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  1. We had that plant growing up… keep away. I was surprised by the distribution map – it’s not out west at all.


    January 7, 2012 at 7:41 AM

  2. I love your photo, but not the plant. I’m highly allergic and have gotten it often because of my outdoor wanderings. Most often on my legs where my former cocker spaniel rubbed it off on me. She was always exploring. Maggie, on the other hand, doesn’t wander that much.

    Pat Bean

    January 7, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    • Glad you like the photo, if not the photographee. The fact that you’re highly allergic makes me wonder whether you could train your dog—given a dog’s acute sense of smell—to avoid poison ivy. If you could devise a method to do that you might help a lot of people (and maybe become wealthy in the process).

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 7:58 AM

  3. The capillary bleed of one color into another is what gives this leaf its lacy complexity, making the multicolored look of it that much richer. I am very happy to say I’ve never had a Close Encounter of any kind with this plant, but it’s certainly got some attractive visual texture as you’ve shown. Despite any feelings that feeling it might engender, I love its Latin name–I mean, how can you blame a plant called Toxic and almost-radical for defending its honor!


    January 7, 2012 at 11:14 AM

    • Thanks for the information about capillary bleed, Kathryn. Unlike you, I have had some close encounters with this plant, because it’s hard to be out in the woods in central Texas and not find poison ivy. Still, I’m happy to report that even on those rare occasions when I’ve accidentally brushed up very lightly against some part of the plant, I’ve had no adverse reaction later. I’d like to think I’m one of those few people who aren’t allergic to poison ivy, but I’m not pushing my luck and I always do my best to avoid contact. Sometimes I have to navigate gingerly past poison ivy to get in position to photograph something else, so the caution comes even when this plant isn’t what I want to get pictures of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 11:51 AM

      • Now, I wasn’t being technical about the bleed, but rather, descriptive. Don’t know enough about plant vascular systems to know whether that’s the specific process or just the appearance of it to me! 🙂


        January 8, 2012 at 2:16 PM

      • I’m happy to have your description, Kathryn, whether it’s subjective or botanical (or both).

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 8, 2012 at 2:37 PM

  4. Just saw someone with plant dermatitis from a recent trip to a Texas state park.


    January 7, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    • There are enough species in this state for everyone’s skin to be allergic to something. Contact with the scaly leaves of juniper trees makes my skin redden and itch. I’ve read that the white liquid in some of the Euphorbias does that for many people.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 3:16 PM

  5. Oh, yes, know it well. A terrible beauty, as you capture so well here. Loveliest of all in fall, toxic (for me at least) even in the mode of dead of winter vines.

    Susan Scheid

    January 7, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    • Too bad you know it so well, Susan. Your comment about its potency even in winter reminds me of this statement by Gillis quoted in Shinners and Mahler’s Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas: “The poisons may be effective for an indefinite period of time in causing dermatitis. Several hundred year-old herbarium specimens have been known to affect a sensitive person who has handled them!”

      And, in quite a different context, your phrase “a terrible beauty” reminds me of the line that ends most of the stanzas of Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916”: “A terrible beauty is born.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 3:57 PM

  6. I read somewhere that they grow it on purpose in England! I enjoy the color, too. At Illinois Beach State Park we appreciate it for keeping people on the trails, as the sandy dune plant communities are easily destroyed by wayward foot traffic.


    January 7, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    • I wonder why they’d grow poison ivy on purpose in England (maybe botanists who want to study it?). In Illinois I can definitely see how poison ivy would keep people on the trails. Here in Austin I’ve been on a few trails where the poison ivy along the edges is so lush it leans out into the space and makes it hard for people to get by.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 4:49 PM

      • Indeed. When we are leading nature walks the first order of business is making sure everyone knows what it looks like. Here it is quite variable, sometimes scaling trees with “hairy” vines, other times behaving more like an unassuming herb. lying in wait…. Does it do that there, too?


        January 7, 2012 at 4:54 PM

      • Yes. I’ve written about it as the most protean of our native species, given the different forms it can assume. In addition to the ones you mentioned, it can grow here as a freestanding little bush, and in the winter it often appears as a bare upright stalk a couple of feet tall. I’ve learned to recognize it in all those forms, and, as you said, I’ve often enough pointed out the most common one—the low herb with three leaflets—to people walking in nature with me.

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 7, 2012 at 5:04 PM

  7. Poison ivy looks so beautiful here in northeast Ohio in the fall. It’s one of the first to start showing color. The vines of brilliant colors wind around the trees and start the season off with a bang. More than a bang for those allergic who get too close. I’m not allergic for the most part, but I am careful even so, wearing gloves and using Fels Naptha soap to wash up when I finish pulling it.

    Lovely image. The colors are wonderful.


    January 7, 2012 at 8:26 PM

    • For years I was the butterfly monitor at Illinois Beach State Park…. I swear the butterflies perched on poison ivy on purpose! Every week I’d go swish my net in the Lake just to be on the safe side :). (butterflies always released unharmed, of course.)


      January 7, 2012 at 8:36 PM

      • And your precautions sound good too, Melissa. Most animals don’t seem to be bothered by poison ivy, and some birds even eat the little fruits (thereby helping to spread the seeds afterwards). Poison ivy has inconspicuous flowers, but I don’t know what sorts of butterflies or other insects are attracted to them and do the job of pollination.

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 7, 2012 at 8:50 PM

        • It was usually the sneaky skippers doing it. They weren’t nectaring, now that you mention it. Just sitting on the leaves snickering at me.


          January 8, 2012 at 10:47 AM

      • I guess their snickering meant: “Look at that I can get away with that you can’t.” But then having the ability to fly would have to be included too.

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 8, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    • It’s good to hear that you appreciate poison ivy’s fall color, Robin, and that it’s one of the plants that inaugurates the season up there for you. At least when it’s colorful you can tell where it is and where it has been all along. Your precautions sound like good ones.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 7, 2012 at 8:46 PM

  8. So beautiful dear Steve, I loved it. Thank you, with my love, nia


    January 8, 2012 at 7:33 AM

  9. I have always felt that poison ivy is spectacular in the fall. I have some shots of it climbing fir trees and the contrast of the pine needles and the bright leaves is really pretty! Great photo Steve!!!


    January 8, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    • So I’m finding out that I’m not alone. If any of your pictures of poison ivy turning color are online, perhaps you could provide a link for us to go have a look.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 8, 2012 at 4:28 PM

  10. Nice shot Steve! I have to admit I have never run across poison ivy (or if I have I didn’t notice it, which may be more likely). The leaves do show amazing colours, don’t they! Cheers!


    January 9, 2012 at 12:39 PM

    • I think most people would feel fortunate not to have run across—or worse, into—poison ivy. The coloring of the leaves is attractive, but I’m told the coloring and accompanying itching of the skins of those affected by the plant isn’t. That said, I’ve been able to get some pretty pictures of poison ivy leaves since I first saw, in November of 2006, how appealing they can be.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2012 at 12:54 PM

  11. Haha! Yes, and those skippers fly FAST, too, hence the net. I imagine you get a lot of butterflies down your way. I’m jealous to see the sunflower pictures!


    January 9, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    • Because of the extended drought, 2011 was a relatively poor year for butterflies here, but in general we probably have more of them you do, given that we don’t get many freezes in Austin. I’ve seen some butterflies in the past week, but you most likely haven’t seen any in January up north. As for sunflowers, I’d say we get to see at least a few of them for eight months of the year, with the peak coming in June.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2012 at 5:39 PM

  12. […] seen so far have been the leaves of rattan, Texas red oak, cedar elm, flameleaf sumac, and even poison ivy. Cometh now a native grass that botanists call Chasmanthium latifolium, and that the rest of us […]

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