Working with Poison Ivy
I've been working with poison ivy, or as i'd like to call them, queen ivy as a plant ally for a little over 5 years. When I tell folks that queen ivy is one of my favorite plants, I am often met with shock and disbelief. I'm always surprised by this because it is often the first plant most want to meet when I lead a plant walk. While I am aware that the eagerness to want to meet poison ivy, is to be able to recognize the plant and stay away from it, something about this idea got my wheels turning.
In my experience, plants just like people are often discriminated, disliked, and oppressed based on this collective idea that they're "undesirable". Growing up a woman of color in a dominant western culture has definitely influenced and pulled me towards working with what I call "oppressed plants". Whether it's dandelion, the shining beacon of resiliency who has been up against a never ending battle against pesticides and perfect green lawns or poison ivy, the great protector of the land and earth, I am completely drawn to these plants by nature. Just like mugwort, dandelion, queen ivy, I have always felt like an outsider. I'm brown and my ancestors and culture are far away. I often imagine poison ivy having moments where they wish they were a rose or a daisy just like I have once wished to me an emily or a sarah. These thoughts began for me an acknowledgment that this plant that I had met before, and with whom I often regretted painfully the times we encountered each other, would become a good friend to me. The second thing that lead me to working with poison ivy is the home I live in with my partner and child. It was late winter when we moved in around 5 years ago, and it wasn't until spring that I began to see three little read leaves sprouting up everywhere as the weather warmed. When I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. Our long dirt road was flocked on both sides with poison ivy. Our bog was a matted jungle of sweet woodruff, vinca, and poison ivy. Poison ivy was literally growing up the sides of our house! I immediately realized that no amount of pulling up of this plant was going to make a difference. As an herbalist and plant person, I slowly began to learn how to cohabit. my partner and I built beautiful gardens surrounding the house filled with medicinal herbs and flowers. A vegetable garden followed, and month by month we put loving care into the land. Soon birds, bees, flies, hummingbirds, moths, and butterfly's began to visit our gardens. I liked to imagine them talking among themselves, saying how happy they were with the new neighbors. I loved watching their dance for food and was grateful in turn that this dance would lead to food and medicine for us as well. During this time I began spending time with queen ivy. At first I felt really nervous, I was always very alert, making sure not to sit or touch their leaves. I often felt distracted and noticed that I would communicate in a very dominant way. I would often request for them to keep distance without asking what they wanted in return. As time went on this language shifted, and as I relaxed I realized how I was pretty much silencing poison ivy from the conversation. Then I began to just sit with queen ivy, and with that I began to understand or sense of what I perceived to be queen ivy's personality. I began to hear their story. For me queen ivy feels like a southern grandma. Fierce, and a spit-fire, but also boisterous, wise, kind, and protective. When I sit with Ivy, it often reminds me of sitting with my mothers friend Debbie from South Carolina. As a child, I would simultaneously feel tenderly held by Debbie but keen that Debbie saw all and took no shit. As I began to develop this friendship with queen ivy, I also began to seek information and history about them. I learned that the indigenous people of north america often use poison ivy as a boundary of land lines. I also learned that poison ivy often sprouted when land was disturbed due to construction of green spaces into commercial spaces. When I had a bit of Queens Ivy's history and context, it was as if a light bulb went off in my head. I began to ask questions: who lived on this land before me, what traumas had occurred upon this land before me, when did poison ivy come to protect the land? By next spring, I saw the three little red leaves begin to emerge, but I noticed that the poison ivy that grew around the house had not come up. In the that second spring, I witnessed queen ivy in bloom. A moment that completely broke me open. Unbelievably, as a self-identified plant person, I never thought or consider poison ivy's flowers. I didn't know if it was a single flower, or many, what color it was, if it was showy or simple. I was amazed to find a raceme filled with sweet small white flowers with hints of orange stamens. This was such an exciting moment for me. I had learned from both Pam Montgomery and Susan Weed, that they both nibbled in the early spring three red leaves that they perceived provided them immunity from the rash. I never related to this concept, it felt like a push for me, and I was uncomfortable with this idea of consuming the plant. But once I witnessed the flower, I realized I could make a flower essence to connect with the plants gifts. I make essence out of the flower, which here in the north east typically blooms in early June on mature vines. I snip one raceme with a pair of garden sheers and add to my essence water. I don't wear gloves when doing this because I cut the flower and put it directly into the glass vessel. I wash the scissors in cold water and soap after I am done using them. For me queen ivy flower essence is an important plant ally. Their gifts are often overlooked but powerful. They provide relentless protection. They embody strength and resilience. They are humble and wise. They are guardians. They hold us and see us.They protect the earth, land, and all living things.They are an elder of the earth. They let you know fiercely, that if you don't pay attention, witness, and give respect, that they will leave a mark to let you know- they are here, they havea place, and they have a name. I use poison ivy essence in tick spray blends. As a health advocate I often take a drop of queen ivy essence when entering a hospital, dr. office, family visit or any situation or location I perceive will trigger feelings of vulnerability. I think queen ivy is a valuable ally for folks who work/fight systems that work towards oppressing the land + populations; I like to leave a drop of essence on earth that has been ripped up, colonized and mined as an offering of protection and solidarity. I take a drop of queen ivy to give me power and confidence in social situations. I think the essence has a place in sex work, in terms of an energetic protector. I like to give this essence to my mother, who came to this land a refugee, as a nod that she too has a place here. Today, I walked down to the place on my land that I harvest queen ivy flower. As I walked, I began to hear the black squirrels communicating between each other. Soon, I noticed there were many together, I had never seen them in such a pack. They quickly dispersed, and I watched them running up the trees, 4 or 5 at a time. It reminded me of peter pan and the lost boys, up to their tricks, goofing off together. They jumped, skipped, and danced around me, and I had a moment where I wondered if they knew I was coming to see the queen. In that moment I couldn't tell if they were protecting queen ivy or if they were excited I was coming to visit. These days, there is very little queen ivy on our property. I have to walk close to the main road to see them. I think back to their presence on the land 5 years ago, and believe that once queen ivy feels the land is safe and in good hands, it leaves to continue doing their work. While I am happy to be a steward of this land I miss seeing queen ivy laid out on the forest floor, boisterously laughing with one eye open.