The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

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Poison Ivy Remedy: Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel July 11, 2017

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

As I spend copious time in the outdoors, I often end up covered with poison ivy at least once or twice in the summer.I happen to like poison ivy as a plant a lot–she is beautiful, she is powerful, and she teaches us awareness (more on her soon).    But the contact dermatitis that I get from her on a regular basis kind of sucks.  Given that, I have a simple recipe that I make and keep on my shelf that seeks the healing power of two other plants: witch hazel and jewelweed.  This jewelweed infused witch hazel is a great remedy for poison ivy and clears it up very quickly.

 

If you can’t find jewelweed, I believe this recipe would be fairly effective with plantain or chickweed.  But Jewelweed is really the best.

 

Harvesting Jewelweed

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is also known as spotted touch-me-not, orange touch me not, and orange balasm.  It is an annual plant that self seeds readily, so once you know where it grows, you can easily find it in the same spot year after year.  It prefers damp, shady, forested enviornments, although I’ve also found it in wetter part sun or mostly sun environments.  The key is that it likes a moist forest floor.

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

On a recent plant walk, one of my attendees told me that jewelweed was named this way because if you put it under water in a flowing stream, it looks like a beautiful jewel!  So try it and see if you agree.

 

This plant’s primary use in herbal medicine is as a poison ivy remedy.  You can use it in two ways:

  • Fresh jewelweed can be applied to a location that was just exposed to poison ivy.  For this, simply pick a plant (especially getting the lower stem area and the places where the leaves join the stem that are very juicy), crush it, and rub it on the affected area.  This may take off the oils from poison ivy and prevent you from getting contact dermatits also known as poison ivy.
  • You can pick it and tincture it in witch hazel (or vinegar, in a pinch) and use this to dry out and soothe the poison ivy.
A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

If you are making the remedy, you will need enough jewelweed (chopped up and crushed) to loosely fill a mason jar of whatever size you want to make.  Unless you are in poison ivy all the time, probably a pint or half pint jar is all anyone needs for a while.  It does keep indefinately, so it doesn’t hurt to make more.

 

I also like to leave an offering (a pinch of home-grown tobacco) for the jewelweed for the harvest, of course, to honor the plant and the land.

 

Making Your Poison Ivy Remedy

Poison Ivy on the skin is caused by the oils in the plant reacting with the skin.  This makes the skin blister up and get very itchy.  The more you scratch, you the more spread the poison ivy (by spreading the oils) all over your skin.  What this remedy does is help heal and take out the itch (jewelweed) and dry out the afflicted areas (witch hazel).  It works wonderfully.

 

Ingredients and Materials:

Scissors or a knife

1 bottle of witch hazel (you can make your own from the witch hazel plant by distilling the branches in the early spring or you can go to the drug store and pick some up)

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

 

Step 1: Crush up your jewelweed.

To make your preparation, you will want to get as much juice from the jewelweed as possible into your preparation.  To do this, I like to first crush the jewelweed with my hands or a blunt object. I don’t crush it too much, but enough that it will expose more surface area to the witch hazel.  Pay attention to the thicker areas where the leaves attach to the stem–these are very juice filled (and the juice is the medicine).

Crushing up the jewelweed

Crushing up the jewelweed

Step 2: Chop up jewelweed finely into the jar.

Chop up (or tear up) the jewelweed and add it to the mason jar. A good pair of kitchen scissors will help this process quite a bit–I find that better than any knife for this work.  You don’t want to over-fill the jar, but do fill it up loosely.

Chopping up Jewelweed

Chopping up Jewelweed

 

Step 3: Crush it some more in the jar.

At this point, I continue to crush the jewelweed.  Here, I used my fingers, but I oculd easily use a pestle (the round thing used to grind herbs in a mortar) or some such similar tool.  Get as much juice out as you can at this stage.

Crushing further

Crushing further

 

Step 4: Add witch hazel.

Now, pour in your witch hazel, ensuring that it covers the Jewelweed fully.  If the jewelweed is too firmly packed, you’ll end up with less (after you remove the plant material in a few weeks).

Add witch hazel

Add witch hazel

 

Step 5:  Lit sit (macerate) 2-3 weeks and then strain.

Let your preparation sit for a few weeks in a cool, dark place.  Then, you can strain out the jewelweed (you can do this by hand, or with a hand held potato ricer or tincture press).  Place the liquid back in the jar, ensuring that you don’t have any extra plant material.

 

Using your Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel

You can use the jewelweed infused witch hazel when you have an active outbreak of poison ivy dermitis. Use a Q-tip or cotton ball and liberally apply the preparation to the affected area. Repeat this several times a day (or more, I usually do it 5-6 times a day or any time I enter the bathroom).  It will clear up the poison ivy very quickly!

 

I hope this small remedy helps many a forest wanderer this summer!

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Spiritual Lessons from the Land: On the Vines that Catch and Snag September 4, 2015

Nature is abundant with stories and metaphors that allow us to reflect upon our own lives and draw deep meaning, as I’ve written about many times on this blog. It is in these simple lessons that we find the most profound truths–ways of re-seeing our own lives, stories that allow us to spiritually grow, and methods of better living and interacting with our lands. I believe that everything we need to understand to heal ourselves, our lands, and our communities can be found within nature–if only we listen. Today, I’d like to share two stories about vines and the spiritual teachings that they provide.

 

In the weeks following my move to Western PA this summer, I made it a point to visit as many wild places as possible. The closest one was a park to the north, visible from my window of my rented house in town, that’s about 270 acres. As I was walking through this park on my very first visit, a friend and I came across some Common Buckthorn vines on a grove of Sassafras. One of the Sassafras had been strangled to death by the largest vine and was standing dead.

 

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Three more Sassafras trees had vines crawling up them, but the vines were smaller and had not yet choked out the tree. We found where the vine met the ground, and decided to cut it to save the other trees. The problem was that we lacked the right tool—we had a Hori Hori that has a small saw on it that’s not that effective, but that will work in a pinch (described in this post).  Unfortunately, we didn’t have my portable fold-up saw that I usually carry (which would have made short work of the vine and is much more effective for that kind of job). So cutting the vine and liberating the sassafras trees was slow going, with each of us taking turns, cutting through this vine that was about 2.5” round. That Buckthorn vine was not interested in being cut in the slightest and was quite tough, and the job was quite taxing and difficult. We took turns, and still ended up cutting for a good 30 or 40 minutes in the high heat and humidity before we were finally through the vine. The trees thanked us, and we continued on our hike.

 

In a second story, I recently visited some friends who have been long-time gardeners (their entire backyard is converted to a vegetable garden). A series of stressful events have left them less time to work on the garden this year than in previous years, so the weeds have taken over. I decided to put a few hours into weeding while I was there, and found myself weeding two vines—some kind of morning glory vine and a lot of honeysuckle vine. Its been very, very wet year and the vines have used that, and the fertile soil of the garden, to really take off. The honeysuckle vine was easy enough to clip at the ground to temporarily cut it back, but the stuff was just everywhere. The smaller vine, the morning glory vine, proved exceedingly difficult. In what I thought was just a pile of vine I found garlic and onions, some strangled to death by the vine, all brought to the ground. One vine could send off up to 10 different tendrils. The beans fared a bit better, but even they were likewise pulled down by these vines. It was very slow going, and I opted in some cases for pulling out the root and leaving some of the vine on, cause the damage to the plant to try to remove it would be worse. By the end of my weeding session, I had saved a good deal of the garlic and beans and the vines were already beginning to wilt in the sun–but not all could be saved.

 

A set of powerful lessons lie in these two stories, and I’m sure you can see even more lessons within than I discuss here.  These lesson resonate on multiple levels: ecologically, spiritually, and personally.

 

Ecologically, Common Buckthorn and Japanese Honeysuckle are both some of the more problematic species that are not native to the USA, and there’s been a lot of concern what to do about them (and no, I do not advocate the use of spraying chemicals, nor do I like to use the term invasive species). They are concerns because they are plants that did not evolve here, but arrived here somewhere in the 1880’s as ornamental plants and are now very widespread. Due to their vining nature,  they can cause serious unbalances in the ecosystem in the shorter term, before nature adapts. Honeysuckle can create huge mats where nothing else can grow and pull down other plant vegetation. Buckthorn can quickly dominate and pull down whole trees in a matter of a few short years as it is a much thicker and tougher vine. I think plants like these teach us a powerful ecological lesson–we brought this plant here without knowledge of what it would do, and now we are seeing the effects of that long-term. We have many such lessons at present, of course, but its a good reminder that we harm nature by not understanding her or what introducing unknown elements can do to her.  Furthermore, Its likely that a very small number of these plants were brought here–but now they are all throughout our lands and changing the ecosystems here.  I beleive, in enough time, the land will adapt to these newcomers and all will be well–but that’s on a larger evolutionary scale.  The current situation teaches us the lesson of impact–we never know what small actions (either good or bad) can lead to long-term change.

 

On a spiritual level, lessons that Buckthorn and Honeysuckle are good reminders of what we want to cultivate in our spiritual lives. I think both of these plants teach us lessons of restriction and what can happen to us spiritually if we allow too many things to pile up and entwine around us. Just as we can see these plants at work in the outer world, in the inner world, we can have problematic issues that prevent rich spiritual life from developing.  These include the constant drains on our time, the things that cloud our inner vision (television, politics and media are particularly bad about this, at least for me), living too closely to the destructive patterns of consumerism and industrialization, and more. I see these constant drains preventing us from a richer spiritual life like vines around our inner sacred grove of trees, attempting to bring them down. If we are not careful, the trees of our inner sacred grove are strangled and simply die, as in the case of the sassafras.

 

The vines teach a similar lesson on a personal and interpersonal level. Sometimes we get into situations or have people in our lives that begin wrapping themselves around us—they have that uncontrolled vine energy. At first, it might not be a big deal, because they are just a small vine, but if they are there long enough, they can hurt us possibly beyond repair. Sometimes, it takes a third party to come in, cut the vine at its source, and help you recover. But this work is never easy—and it can be really draining and difficult. We also need to be aware of the kinds of energy that may be trying to pull us down and strangling us. Even if we are able to get out of that kind of situation, it might leave its mark. The Sassafrass trees forever bear the scars of where the vine had twisted itself around their bark–but they will live!

 

In the gardens of our lives, we have cultivated the soil and have planted various kinds of seeds we have planted that we want to manifest (like creative projects, starting a family, finding meaningful work, etc). These seeds need light, moisture, and good soil—but they also need to be free of competition. The vine energy of other pressing matters often puts those things we most want to bear fruit on the back burner. The garlic and beans, much more delicate plants, would have not have produced at all because the vines were not only strangling them but shading them out. It required the full removal of the vines for those plants to have any chance at producing this season–and that was delicate and difficult work indeed.  If we want tender things growing in the soil, we must be ready to keep them free and able to grow without restriction.

 

Not all vines do what these two vines do–and that too, is an important lesson from nature. I’ll draw your attention to poison ivy vine, which is a plant that has evolved in this part of the world (read = native), and a plant which lives in perfect harmony with healthy trees that it climbs.  Poison ivy climbs up a tree in order to reach sunlight, not to choke and strangle, and the trees rarely suffer ill effects of having a vine. I’ve seen trees and poison ivy vines growing together for very long periods of time, the ivy sometimes blending into the leaves of the tree.  Now while most humans may not like poison ivy (I have some on my foot right now and I’m trying to not think about scratching it), the trees have a different relationship with it.  I see this vine as awareness medicine, a plant that tells us to pay attention and be mindful. Many times, I have found poison ivy to be a great defender of the forest–keeping the people out and protecting sacred spaces.  People leave the trees, or forests, alone when it is near.  And for that reason, I have always seen poison ivy as an ally.

 

So this is to say that not not all vine energy is necessarily bad energy in or ecosystem, physical or spiritual lives, and its up to us to recognize the various species of vines (metaphorically and literally) and whether or not they are doing harm. We must meditate on what the vines attempt to teach us and listen and observe their role in the ecosystem.  With this deep observation and meditation, we can understand the lessons of the vines.