My Summer of Poison Ivy

What kid born and bred in southeastern Manitoba hasn’t had an unforgettable encounter with poison ivy?

I grew up in the midst of Poison Ivy Alley. Like, it was likely the cradle of life for all of poison ivy ever. The stuff thrived on our farm. It was our most successful crop.

I loved exploring the bush. And I’ve also been blessed with extremely sensitive skin. (Not a blessing… that was sarcasm.) I had the ability to get poison ivy without even touching the stuff. Even when I’d stick to our well-mowed lawn, I’d get poison ivy all over my feet. This might be why eventually I came to not spend a tonne of time outside during the summer, aka: high season for poison ivy. I’d head outside to explore during the other seasons with great enthusiasm, but as my encounters with poison ivy accumulated, the advent of deep summertime began to fill me with a sense of dread, as poison ivy lurked at every turn.

Of course, my relationship with poison ivy was at the outset pretty innocuous. They were merely these attractive knee-high plants, often nestled enticingly at the edges of the bush together with other plants — usually among pretty little white flowers (see feature photo: the white flowers are not poison ivy, but they cruelly tend to grow together with poison ivy).

As a young child I’d have the impulse to bend low and put my nose to them, just bury my face in them. I’d often be with my grandma at those times, and she would yelp, “NO! That’s poison ivy! Get away! Step back! Do not touch and DO NOT put your face on it!” I was startled at my grandma’s sudden ferocity. You know, she taught me a lot about many plants, and would be adamant about certain things like not picking tiger lilies or lady slippers or any of the blooms in her meticulous flowerbeds. While her tone toward poison ivy was just as ferocious, it was also tinged with exasperation. Like, obviously you ought not to put your face on that stuff. As a kid, it was not yet obvious to me, though. “Why not? What will happen?” I inquired. You will get very itchy and uncomfortable, was the response. To my mind, that sounded like a mosquito bite. Well, those are not fun, but I was pretty used to them, and as a farm kid with sensitive skin, I did live much of my life being itchy and uncomfortable to some degree all summer long. But, I listened to her and learned to studiously avoid the plant… which was kind of a full-time job, as it was seriously everywhere.

Even so, I somehow managed to avoid a full-fledged breakout of aggressive poison ivy for many years… until I experienced The Summer of Poison Ivy at the beautifully awkward age of 12 or 13. I suppose I had simply overlooked a huge swatch of the stuff as I tromped through the bush looking for berries, and the toxic oils likely got just everywhere, all over me. The worst of it was between my toes and all over my face. My feet puffed up with itchy bubbles so badly I developed a limp, and my face puffed up so badly I could hardly speak and could certainly not smile. It was excruciating, so my mom brought me to the hospital. I was given a prescription cream, and proceeded to spend the remainder of my summer leaving the chalky pink residue of calamine lotion on everything I touched. That experience blessed me with a righteous fear of any three-leaved plant, forevermore.

But, by now, many years have passed. I’m 40 years old, and am tired of being ruled by a fear of poison ivy. A few weeks ago, I ventured into the bush to explore, and I felt like a little kid again! And, because it’s southeastern Manitoba, there was naturally poison ivy EVERYWHERE. Nevertheless, I waded confidently through the stuff. Mind you, I was wearing old jeans and boots and a long-sleeved shirt and a hat… and when I got home after this adventure, I disposed of those jeans and showered and soaped up real good… and I’m happy to report that I didn’t get a single shred of poison ivy. I’ve somehow successfully remained itch-free. It feels like a sort of victorious miracle. I have triumphed over the dreaded poison ivy!

I’ve recently learned that there are in fact some Manitobans who have somehow grown into adulthood remaining completely unaware of the dangers of this pretty petite three-leaved horror. How can this be? Are you among the Lucky Ones?