Robert Patrick, one of my fellow druids, posted a wonderful blog entry today about tending his grove. He talks about poison ivy and blackberry brambles, and that got me thinking about those incredible plants.
Poison ivy is amazing. It’s a small, modest-looking plant; not unattractive but not showy, growing low to the ground, hardy in various climates. It springs up along verges and anywhere the ground has been disturbed. That’s where its magic shows – for all its modestly it is actually a fierce guardian of the earth.
The places where it grows are places where plants are working to reestablish themselves after a disturbance. Poison ivy rings groves of trees that have been left standing after a forest is cut, as if to say, “You got the rest but you won’t have these!” Humans can be stunningly unconscious to the ground beneath our feet. Poison ivy makes us pay attention, or suffer the consequences. Mow it or weed whack it and the oils from the crushed leaves will hurt you. People have died from burning poison ivy – we may not simply burn or trample whatever we want, because poison ivy will be there to retaliate.
I have always been immune to poison ivy. I was raised on goat’s milk and our goats ate poison ivy, passing on an immunity to me. In other words, the food I consumed was a product of my immediate local environment, and so by eating that food I became part of that environment. I know there are scientific explanations for this sort of thing, but to explain it in a mystical way, I was part of the land and the land knew me, and kept me safe. It’s the same reason I have no pollen allergies when I’m at home but I do when I’m away. I don’t take that immunity for granted, since it’s been many years since I’ve lived off of my local environment, and I maintain a healthy respect for poison ivy.
Nettles (my own favorite) are another plant like this. They like scrubby “waste” areas and will sting anyone careless enough to brush past them. Nettles sting, especially when approached carelessly. If you know them well, though, and can grasp them just right, you won’t get stung. I’ve harvested nettles without gloves on and gotten away unscathed (though not always.) Unlike poison ivy, nettles are edible, delicious and nutritious, and while all they have for the unwary or unconscious is a sting, if you take the time to get to know them they reward you.
Blackberry brambles are yet another protector plant. They are tenacious and prickly and create almost impenetrable barriers. There is no immunity to blackberry prickles – they are sharp and will cut anyone who is unwary enough to approach. When I was a kid I used to crawl on my belly through brambles, getting the occasional scratch, in order to sit amongst the canes and feast on blackberries, feeling utterly safe, protected and well-fed. I’m much too big to do that anymore, but I still like seeing bramble patches because they look like islands of safety to me.

Here in Philadelphia, we have a huge park system. Fairmount Park has wide open fields, forests, scrubby areas, areas that are tended and those left wild. It also features packs of feral dogs, packs of semi-feral teenagers, random dumped trash, outdoor crackhouses – Philadelphia has some serious social ills and it’s all reflected in the park system. And yet, there are places where it’s clean, quiet and safe. These are the areas that are ringed with poison ivy and brambles – beyond these barriers, there’s no trash, no signs of human activity – these groves have guardiand at the gates, and it’s only by respecting and honoring the guards that one can get past.