It’s research, after all. There’s an old, old belief that eating a leaf of poison ivy every day in the spring will make you immune to the itch. It’s undoubtedly true, I read it on the internet! All sorts of websites attribute the custom to Canadian loggers, Spanish conquistadors, or various unspecified Indians.
But many reputable sources agree that it’s possible to attain immunity by eating poison ivy. Euell Gibbons, the famous wild foods guru of the sixties, swore by this method—he recommended starting in spring when the leaves are small, and eating one a day, therefore getting a small and slowly increasing dose of urushiol, the toxic chemical that causes the itch, so that your system can gradually develop an immunity.
I’ve actually met someone who had done this. A young man who assured me that he ate poison ivy every spring. He was still alive, with lips and tongue apparently intact–he swore it didn’t bother him at all, and he never got a rash. And, better yet, he vowed poison ivy leaves were delicious, with a “light, lemony taste.”
The early spring leaf in my fingers is no bigger than a pea. How could such a small amount hurt anyone? But research has shown that a sensitive individual can get a horrendous reaction from 50 micrograms of urushiol—a grain of salt weighs 60 micrograms.
I drop the leaf on the ground. Nope. Just can’t do it. I’m not particularly susceptible to poison ivy, but allergies are tricky things. You can develop them as you age, or grow out of them. A nibble of poison ivy just might sensitize me so that my next poison ivy encounter would be worse than ever. I guess I’m just not a truly dedicated researcher. I’ll just have to enjoy poison ivy this spring from a safe distance.
Itching to know more? Check out my books:
In Praise of Poison Ivy: The Secret Virtues, Astonishing History, and Dangerous Lore of the World’s Most Hated Plant. Identification, tips for healing the itch, and why birds love PI–everything (and more) that you ever wanted to know about poison ivy.
Leaflets Three, Let It Be! A picture book for pre-K to Grade 3, to help the youngest explorers enjoy nature safely.