Royal Beauty: Marie Antoinette…and Poison Ivy?

Posted by on Sep 23, 2020 in Unmowed Blog | 0 comments

marie antoinette portrait with rosePoison ivy is, quite possibly, the most hated plant on earth. So it’s kind of hard to imagine that poison ivy was once an admired and sought-after garden plant. Yes, a garden plant—I’m not kidding. There was a time when poison ivy seeds were almost literally worth their weight in gold.

Poison ivy wasn’t grown for its beautiful flowers (yes, it has flowers, delicate white blossoms) or its berries that are so popular with birds in wintertime. Poison ivy was grown for its regal colors. In late summer, poison ivy is one of the earliest plants to turn color, changing from nondescript green to gold, scarlet, and purple. Royal colors.poison ivy leaves fall colors

For us in the twenty-first century, it’s hard to understand the intense enthusiasm with which vivid plants like poison ivy were hailed a few hundred years ago. The garden in those days was a green place, but not the bright shout-out of color it is today. Exotic species from the Americas, Asia and Africa—things like petunias, peonies, daylilies, and zinnias—were just beginning to make inroads into European gardens. And fall in Great Britain and northern Europe was an especially dull affair: summer’s green leaves just wilted, turned brown, and fell off.

So when European colonists experienced their first North American autumn, they were thrilled by the leafy fireworks: orange and gold maples, scarlet-tinted oaks and Virginia creeper, purple ash trees, and a rainbow of poison ivy. Poison ivy’s colors were deemed worth risking a rash for.

Poison ivy was grown in English gardens as early as 1634. It was a hit with wealthy lords and landowners, and even with monarchs. Poison ivy was planted for decades in the fanciest, most ornate garden of them all: the magnificent estate of Versailles.

Louis XIV wanted to turn Versailles into a vast and imposing palace that would became the seat of the French government—a worthy home for the ultimate monarchy. In keeping with the fashion of the time, the royal gardeners weren’t aiming for a natural look. They wanted to subdue nature, to impose human order on wildness. So the original rolling terrain was greatly altered. Hills were flattened into terraces, running brooks turned into ornamental fountains. Gardens were laid out with geometric precision, and trees were planted in straight lines, trimmed at a uniform height. Each plant was set apart from its neighbors, like caged animals in a zoo. Exotics from all over the world graced the garden, and poison ivy was one of the many foreign plants King Louis admired in his new domain.versailles trees

The grounds of Versailles became the epitome of the classic French style. The controlled and regimented gardens symbolized the monarch’s total control over his subjects, and were a horticultural testament to the mastery of man over nature.

But poison ivy is a plant that’s hard to master.

Clipping the branches, trimming its untidy foliage, and coaxing the fuzzy vine to run in prearranged patterns would be a hazardous task indeed. Many royal gardeners must have come off on the losing side in a battle with poison ivy. Yet the irritating plant is repeatedly listed in the royal garden inventories of Versailles, appearing as early as 1759.

Undoubtedly the most famous inhabitant of Versailles was not poison ivy, but the doomed and beautiful queen, Marie Antoinette. Arriving at Versailles as a teenager, the youthful bride of the heir to the throne, she was immediately bored and frustrated by the regimented life of the court, which was rigidly controlled by persnickety rules of etiquette. Marie Antoinette adored plants, and ordered rarities from all over the world. Dozens of species of American plants graced her bower at Versailles.

Most of the brave souls who have gardened with poison ivy have felt that it’s better to leave it alone and let it run wild as much as possible. Left to itself, poison ivy will clamber up trees, as well as spreading along the ground. This pattern of growth fit in perfectly with Marie Antoinette’s preferred style of gardening—the uncorseted, natural poison ivy on trellis

Always a leader of fashion, the carefree queen loved the newest type of garden which was becoming all the rage, known as the “Anglo-Chinese” style. Inspired by naturalistic Oriental gardens, English gardeners had embraced an apparently care-free style of gardening—which was actually no less planned and regimented than the French geometric style. Echoing the growing push for freedom that was sweeping Europe, freedom was invading gardens as well.poison ivy fall color

Gardeners began to take down walls. Trees and hedges were no longer trimmed into cubes and spheres, but were allowed to grow in natural forms. Flowers intermingled, shrubs were loosely arranged in fragrant groves where vines draped themselves casually over the branches. But Nature wasn’t really left to run free and wild—it was artfully arranged to look as if it was running free and wild. European gardens mimicked the wilderness of North America—poison ivy and all.


To find out more about poison ivy’s weird history as a garden plant—and its remarkable benefits for wildlife—please check out:

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 praise of poison ivy sanchez

Leaflets Three, Let It Be! A picture book for pre-K to Grade 3, to help the youngest explorers enjoy nature safely.

leaflets three let it be sanchez

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