Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

One thing that poison ivy is good for

with 36 comments

One thing that poison ivy is good for is color in the late fall and early winter. This portrait comes from the lower portion of Allen Park on December 17, 2021. I’ve read that the sheen on the leaflets attests to the presence of urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy that irritates most people’s skin. “Look but do not touch” remains sound advice. The most interestingly colored poison ivy I ever saw was also in the lower portion of Allen Park, way back in 2006.


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Yesterday we went to the Austin Nature Center, not to visit the indoor exhibits but to walk through the place and onto the trails beyond. When we arrived at the main building we were met with a sign saying everyone has to wear a mask not only inside buildings but outdoors as well. That doesn’t “follow the science.”

Currently 98.3% of all new Covid-19 infections in the United States are from the Omicron variant. According to an NPR article, “…given how contagious omicron is, experts say, it’s seriously time to upgrade to an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you’re in public indoor spaces. ‘Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,’ says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses transmit in the air.” Yet the Austin Nature Center—and presumably every other institution that requires masks indoors—allows cloth masks.

As for outdoor transmission of Covid-19, it’s rare. David Leonhardt noted last year in a New York Times article entitled “A Misleading C.D.C. Number” that “the share of transmission that has occurred outdoors seems to be below 1 percent and may be below 0.1 percent, multiple epidemiologists told me. The rare outdoor transmission that has happened almost all seems to have involved crowded places or close conversation.” Those are hardly the conditions you’ll find outdoors at a nature center, are they?

Following the science, we ignored the mask mandate as soon as we were away from the Austin Nature Center buildings. When we stopped a minute later to look at some rescued raptors in outdoor enclosures, we noticed a young couple who had also stopped there. I saw that they weren’t wearing masks either, and I asked them sarcastically if they weren’t afraid of catching Covid-19. Turns out the couple was visiting from Florida, and the guy said that in his state things aren’t restrictive the way they are in Austin. I told him Austin is the Berkeley of Texas and people here are crazy; then I made sure to add that although Eve and I live here we aren’t crazy.

Later, even farther away from the Nature Center, we encountered first one and then another small group of young children on an outing in the woods. The adult guides were wearing masks, as were many but not all of the little children. Later I was sorry I hadn’t asked if the children’s parents had decided whether their kids had to wear a mask or could go maskless outdoors. We’ve known since early in the pandemic that children are by far the least susceptible group, so there’s no reason for them to be wearing masks when they’re out in nature. That’s the science.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 14, 2022 at 4:38 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , ,

36 Responses

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  1. Oily urushiol retains potency well beyond the life of the leaf, transfers easily to clothing that brushes against leaves, then to the skin. A diagnostic sign of contact with urushiol is a linear pattern of a spreading rash. We struggled for years to eradicate poison ivy from our property.


    January 14, 2022 at 5:24 AM

    • I read about a case where a 200-year-old poison ivy specimen in a botany collection cause a reaction in someone. I’m sorry to hear the poison ivy on your property proved so recalcitrant. A little came up in our back yard not long after we moved here. I applied some herbicide to it and fortunately that did the trick.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2022 at 6:44 AM

  2. The leaves are a feast for the eyes. There is no need to touch them.

    Peter Klopp

    January 14, 2022 at 8:55 AM

  3. The poison Ivy looks beautiful against that black background. We don’t have poison Ivy here just poison Oak which thankfully, I’m not allergic to! I still keep my distance because I hear your natural immunity can wear off or be broken by exposure to it. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I don’t want to risk it.

    I don’t wear a mask outside either.


    January 14, 2022 at 10:49 AM

  4. That is one gorgeous photo. If one of the Dutch painters like Jan Bruegel had taken on poison ivy, I can imagine it looking like that.

    Masking has become nearly a non-issue in my area. Some choose to wear them; most don’t. I’ve made my own decisions about vaccinations and masking, and live according to my convictions. Would that everyone could do the same, without demanding that everyone live by their decisions.


    January 14, 2022 at 7:39 PM

    • Actually there was a period when poison ivy became popular in Europe as an exotic species, but I believe that was after Bruegel’s time.

      It’s comforting to hear that masking has become nearly a non-issue in your area. Live and let live. In Austin about six weeks ago I noticed a strange disparity: most shoppers in supermarkets were (and still are) masked, but when we stopped at a Starbucks in the neighborhood not a single customer wore a mask. That was before Omicron; I don’t know if things are different there now.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2022 at 10:38 PM

  5. I am very happy to look and not touch. I apply that to lots of things these days. In my area of Christchurch everyone wears a mask indoors and often outside in the street as well. Mask compliance is high. I expect it is much the same in other parts of NZ. Whether our mask wearing habits will help us when omicron comes remains to be seen. The public health mantra this summer is Mask, Scan, Pass (vaccine). So far so good, although I have to say I am disappointed that I haven’t had to use my vaccine pass yet. I still haven’t been anywhere that requires one.


    January 15, 2022 at 4:43 AM

    • Several times over the past two decades I’ve accidentally brushed up lightly against poison ivy and fortunately never had any reaction. Maybe I’m among the small portion of people who aren’t susceptible, but I don’t push my luck with these plants.

      Probably the least explicable thing involving masks that we’ve seen during the pandemic is the occasional person wearing a mask while driving alone in a car. I’ve stretched to come up with a plausible explanation: might one or more other people have been in the car a little earlier, and the driver wants to filter any residual exhalations? But if that’s the case, why not drive with all the windows open to air out the car as quickly as possible?

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2022 at 5:17 AM

      • I can answer the latter! From my own experience. It’s laziness and sometimes forgetfulness! I get halfway home and think, “Why am I still wearing my mask?’ And, then, “Oh well, I am nearly home, it can just stay on.” By the way, if things get worse in the Pacific we might be wearing masks for another reason; volcanic ash. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/459618/live-updates-tsunami-advisory-for-parts-of-nz-s-north-island-waves-crashing-into-tonga


        January 15, 2022 at 5:23 AM

        • Ah, I forgot about forgetfulness!

          This is the first I’ve heard about the eruption of the underwater volcano in Tonga—and even about the existence of said underwater volcano. It’s impressive that “The latest explosions were heard even in New New Zealand, more than 2300 kilometres away, and as ‘loud thunder sounds’ in Fiji, 500 kilometres away. / New Zealand forecaster Weather Watch tweeted: the energy release was simply astonishing, with reports of people hearing the sonic booms throughout New Zealand.”

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 15, 2022 at 5:46 AM

  6. I love the many colors of poison ivy and you’ve captured some nice variations of gold, red and brown. When we first moved here I worked hard to eradicate poison ivy. Then when we raised our first fawn and freed her to the wild, I often walked with her and discovered that poison ivy leaves were one of her favorite eats! We’ve allowed it to grow here, except in my flower beds. I leave it to grow in the deer pen as well, even though that means if a fawn licks my arm while it’s mutual grooming, I may end up with a rash.


    January 15, 2022 at 7:47 AM

    • I’ve noticed over the past two decades that the colors and the patterns on poison ivy leaflets near the end of the year (and even into January) are quite varied. That works in a nature photographer’s favor.

      You really are devoted to your fawns if you’re willing to risk getting a poison ivy rash from them. Above and beyond the cal of duty, I’d say.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2022 at 8:52 AM

  7. You’ve photographed it beautifully, but I am glad poison ivy doesn’t grow over here!

    Ann Mackay

    January 15, 2022 at 8:15 AM

    • Poison ivy is quite common in Austin. The popular main trail along the Colorado River in downtown Austin has occasional signs warning people about it. A lot of people don’t know what poison ivy looks like and therefore may walk through stands of it. Several years ago I saw a small group of people doing that and I told them to go home immediately and take a shower or bath to get rid of the irritating chemical before it could cause a reaction.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2022 at 8:24 AM

      • Good thing you were able to tell them that!

        Ann Mackay

        January 16, 2022 at 6:15 PM

        • Unlike nettles—especially bull nettle—where the reaction is almost immediate, the reaction to poison ivy’s urushiol takes a while, so there’s a window in which to wash off the chemical and prevent the skin rash.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 16, 2022 at 7:28 PM

  8. We have mask mandates everywhere, and vaccine mandates for healthcare workers come into force in March, and are on the cards for all over 18’s later. It seems our governments have their own idea of what ‘the science’ is. I find it frightening and oppressive and am going on a protest ‘walk’ (demonstrations are banned) again next week… without a mask. Did you listen to the Joe Rogan interview with Malone? I also just saw the latest ‘Awaken with JP’ video. These people keep me sane.


    January 15, 2022 at 4:08 PM

    • The parts of the United States that lean more toward our tradition of individuality and self-reliance have so far mostly managed to ward off the most draconian of the restrictions some other other parts of our country, as well as other countries, have imposed.

      I haven’t heard/seen either of those videos, so I’ll go chase them down. Thanks for your suggestions.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2022 at 5:12 PM

  9. The colors are super – doesn’t look at all like the poison ivy I avoid up here.


    January 15, 2022 at 6:36 PM

    • I count on poison ivy as one of the most reliable sources of year-end color here. The United States is home to several Toxicodendron species:


      The species in today’s post grows in Massachusetts, as do two others.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2022 at 7:31 PM

      • The leaves of your plant are much more deeply “toothed” than the poison ivy I’m familiar with. But checking a local botany resource, Toxicodendron radicans is pretty variable for that feature, smoothish to deeply toothed. It’s colorful up here as well.


        January 15, 2022 at 7:46 PM

        • That makes it one of the relatively few native species we share, and whose late-in-the-year color we get to take pictures of. I’ve noticed a fair amount of variability here, too, including one specimen with five leaflets instead of the accustomed three:

          On rare occasions 3 = 5.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 15, 2022 at 7:50 PM

          • A poison ivy lookalike up here is Virginia Creeper, with five-leaf clusters, also deep red in fall. It’s a vine, and can intertwine with poison ivy vines. If there are leaves missing in the creeper cluster, it can be confused with poison ivy.


            January 16, 2022 at 1:25 PM

            • Virginia creeper is common here too, and some people do confuse it with poison ivy. Even with two leaflets missing, Virginia creeper wouldn’t deceive someone who knows both vines. As you mentioned, I sometimes see the two growing together on a tree.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 16, 2022 at 4:52 PM

  10. beautiful picture


    January 16, 2022 at 4:11 AM

  11. The very deep red is very appealing against the black background.


    January 20, 2022 at 12:05 PM

  12. You are right, it sure is good for gorgeous colour … hmm, I don’t think we have it in NZ


    January 21, 2022 at 1:25 AM

    • Just as well that you don’t. The American Skin Association says that “about 85 percent of the population is allergic to poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak, and about 10 to 15 percent are extremely allergic. This is the most common allergic reaction in the U.S., and affects as many as 50 million Americans each year.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 21, 2022 at 6:08 AM

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