Leaves of three, let it be! This little rhyme reminds us to watch out for poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) while walking along trails and gardening in our yards during the summer and fall. But we need to be aware of this poisonous plant even during the winter and spring, when its leafless branches, vines and rootlets, if touched, can cause painful itching and blistering skin in humans. While suffering through the aftermath of a poison ivy encounter, one might wonder if there exist any redeeming qualities to this plant.
That being said, let’s look at poison ivy from the perspective of a hungry Black-capped Chickadee or Downy Woodpecker in the middle of a wintry cold spell. Migrating birds have spent the autumn months gorging themselves on the fruits of dogwood, Virginia creeper, spicebush, and other high-fat berries. The fruits of other plant species that persist into the winter months are usually a lesser quality food, containing a lower percentage of fats, or lipids. Passed up during migration, these fruits now become valuable foods to birds struggling to survive the extremes of winter.
Poison ivy’s small, round, white fruits are out there, waiting for a famished bird to pluck them from their stems. In addition to the Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker, about 50 other bird species, including the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Robin, and Eastern Bluebird, will all partake of this offering. Poison ivy redeems itself.