Saturday, June 19, 2010

Doesn't New Paltz just love poison ivy?

Poison ivy is considered a noxious weed in the eyes of the law, and village code specifically demands that property owners get rid of it.  Most noxious weeds are aggressive invasive species, but this nasty stuff is a long-term local.  The plant is only somewhat shade tolerant, and naturally exists as a ground cover in wooded areas or along the edges of forested tracts.  Unfortunately, the poison ivy in New Paltz has found its niche in difficult-to-reach places or those that exist in some sort of legal limbo.

I've known more than one hard-core organic environmentalist who reaches for the Roundup when faced with Toxicodendron radicans.  This plant's defense mechanism makes me certain that the Universe has some kind of plan, and it's a plan that includes a touch of sadism.  It can take several days to develop a poison ivy rash, and it spreads from the most sensitive areas which touched the plant to the least over a period of time.  The worse cases can lead to painful, oozing blisters; the fluid they weep does not spread the rash but it looks and feels horrible.

The urushiol which causes the reaction is not actually on the surface of the plant, but it's so fragile that it can be damaged without much effort.  Fur and feathers serve as protection for the animals that pass through patches of the plant, but the chemical is lying in wait for a hairless human to pet that friendly dog or cat.  In fact, the urushiol can remain active for a year or more on the dead plant, so steering clear of the hairy vines is a good idea year-round.

The plant loves real estate development, because it thrives in disturbed areas.  It grows as a ground cover, climbs up trees and utility poles, and can even become a freestanding bush.  It can tolerate near-drought conditions, but is also fine living on a flood plain or in brackish water.  The berries are popular with birds and other animals, and can germinate just fine after passing through the digestive tract.  It's really well-adapted to surviving here, and in fact has become more prolific since the Huguenots' arrival here.

Repeated exposure to urushiol is likely to chip away at the immunity of anyone lucky enough to have it. Identifying poison ivy can be tricky, because not only does that plant have different forms, the leaves aren't always the familiar almond shape.

In New Paltz, poison ivy grows in places far and wide.  Most residents make a sincere effort to get rid of the stuff, at least when it's close to the sidewalks.  Many people don't want to use chemicals on it, and they don't provide a guarantee that you'll get it all.  On residential property it's very fond of hosta patches, under bushes growing on retaining walls, and anywhere the homeowner may not notice it or would have a difficult time reaching the stuff.

Just as deer seem to know when hunting season has begun, poison ivy almost deliberately grows in areas that exist in some kind of legal limbo.  I've been watching a two-story plant thrive on a utility pole until some well-meaning individual cut through the two-inch thick main vine, and then return as a healthy bush.  Central Hudson owns the pole, but I'm told it's not entirely clear who is responsible for the plant's removal.  Growing in the middle of an intersection on the pedestrian island is also a very clever idea:  who owns that land?  Do they even know about the noxious weed on their land?

Some of the most healthy poison ivy exists in public spaces such as Sojourner Truth Park and along less-traveled paths on campus; our beloved Wallkill Valley Rail Trail provides the perfect environment for flourishing poison ivy.  I don't know if the village and college have any legal requirement to remove this plant, but I know that it's a Herculean task that we probably aren't paying them enough to do.

The only solution I've seen to the New Paltz poison ivy dilemma was suggested by Jason West:  send in the goats.  It's safer than chemicals or hand-pulling, and more effective than either.  I've heard several suggestions about where to obtain these goats for free or for money, and even contacted one of the farmers, but I haven't confirmed that anyone is enterprising enough to hire out their goats.  If there is, I sure think New Paltz could keep them busy.


John Bligh said...

I'd love to see goats being led all over town eating poison ivy everywhere. It would probably bring even more tourists in as the word got out. Could they be trained to eat only poison ivy? Like drug dogs?

Jason West said...

From what I understand, there's not realy any training involved. Spanish and Angorra goats will go for the most lush plants first -- meaning if you tether them in place, they'll eat up all those juicy poison ivy leaves before bothering to go for the grass. Perfect for parks, at least. Homeowners with expensive or precious shrubbery may want to keep a closer eye on what they eat....

I'd love to try this out to see how effective it is -- Terrence, maybe you should just 'borrow' a 'pet goat' and take it out for a walk on a dog leash to Sojourner Truth Park.....and take pictures....

Terence said...

Here I thought I was a local visionary, but it sounds like I'm more on track to be the community goatherd. Well, it's honest work.

Brittany Turner said...

all my differences with Jason aside, I still really, really, really, really, really love the goat idea.

Polly said...

All breeds of goats eat poison ivy. We've borrowed some from Billiam VanRostenberg just for that. The problem is that they need to be supervised - that is, tethered - or they will eat other stuff as well - like hostas and your prize roses. And once they're tethered, they're very vulnerable to dog attacks. So they work great, if you have a goatherd.