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Leaves of Three… Leave Them Be

The sun’s rays penetrates the morning mist in the red maple- black gum wetlands along a river on Long Island one spring day. Yellowthroat warblers sing from high-bush blueberries and catbirds “meow” from the forest canopy. A white-tailed deer, its fur a rich brown, browses on plants on the forest floor. It raises its head to grasp maple leaves on a low branch with its teeth, tears off a cluster of leaves, turns its head and watches me as it chews the tasty morsel. Then to my chagrin, the deer takes a few steps, lowers its head to nibble poison ivy leaves. If you or I ate these leaves, we would become quite ill. Poison Ivy is food for wildlife. Even its white berries is a source of food for birds.

“Never trust it (poison ivy). The more you come into contact with it, the more likely, you’ll get it,” an old farmer from the east end of Long Island once told me. I can testify to that. I accidently came into contact with it working in the field as a biologist and did not get the rash initially. When you work in the field, you cannot avoid it. Despite all the precautions – recognizing and avoiding it, wearing gloves, pre-contact creams, it eventually got me. An all out war broke out on my wrist. Then it spread – to my legs, to my hands, to my eyes.

This poisonous plant grows in different forms. It climbs trees with rope-like vines and also grows on the ground. On Long Island’s barrier beaches, it takes on a shrub-like form standing 5 feet tall in ephemeral pools behind the primary dunes. The key identifier is that is has leaves that grow in groups of three. The group is actually a leaf with three leaflets. The leaflets will be shiny red when it sprouts in the spring, but mature into crayon green in the summer with a bit of a sheen.

Here in Florida poison ivy grows in the cypress swamps and when I see it, I think about the deer nibbling on poisonous leaves on Long Island. I miss that, but I do not miss the irritating, itchy, spreading, raw and blistering rash that poison ivy caused when I came into contact with it! So even if you have pulled it from your garden and did not get the rash, do not trust the leaves of three! It will get you!

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