Pretty but Poisonous, and a Bit of Phenology

The Gardenist

I have been gathering berries and wild twigs for a Thanksgiving floral centerpiece making workshop that I am helping to host tonight (if you are in greater Boston, there might be a few tickets still available for the evening session). Yesterday, I found myself gleefully discovering and subsequently picking the most beautiful berries along the road to my house. In my joy, I completely ignored the obvious — that these were terribly poisonous. I am already starting to pay the price…

There is a saying that you learn when you are a kid at camp: "Leaves of three, let it be". But I had no idea that there is a second line to this poem. It goes like this: "Berries of white, take flight".

The whole time I was picking a bucketful of these pretty berries I had two thoughts in my head: 1) "I can't wait to see how nice these look in my arrangement"
and 2) "Wow, during the summer this area is completely covered in poison ivy, I had no idea that this plant with pretty berries was even here…" (obviously assuming that the Poison Ivy was covering this nice berry thing).

Sometimes I can be really kinda dumb. Only because I had every intention of sharing my find with my classmates did I think, I really ought to know what it is I am sharing… and then Google broke the bad news. I've never exposed myself so badly (and I have had many a steroid-requiring poison ivy rash from this nasty shrub — with only a fraction of yesterday's exposure). Here's hoping that I don't land myself in need of some more serious medical care as this thing evolves.

I wanted to share this little story for two reasons, the obvious being to warn you to watch out for these berries — they are devils in a pretty disguise — but also something else. Many of my gardener friends, while being avid gardeners in areas that are addled with poison ivy, hadn't really come across these berries before. I think there is a reason for that, and it has to do with phenology. Phenology is the study of how things in nature relate to each other and through studying it, you can get a better understanding of how the web of nature truly interacts and supports itself. (Here is the wiki page to read more about it).

Phenology has given us some good gardening guides, like plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel ear and plant tomatoes when lily of the valley is in bloom (here is a pinterest board where I have collected a whole bunch of these associations if you are interested). Phenology is also used in studying bird migrations, global warming, and all sorts of useful climate and environmental science. So, coming to my second point… heavy berry loads (as I have anecdotally noticed in poison ivy this fall) is phenologically considered to indicate a colder, harder, winter ahead (we have been warned). As an avid citizen scientist and gardener, I am going to be noting this winter season to see if in fact this prediction comes true.

How about you — do you trust in any phenological associations? And maybe you have a wonderful poison ivy cure?

(Image: Rochelle Greayer)

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