What Poison Ivy Has Been Up To While You Weren't Paying Attention

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.



So I'm currently working on an article for Prevention magazine about some of the surprising ways that climate change can screw with your health. The thing I least expected is the dirty lambada of destruction being danced, as we speak, by global warming and the common North American Toxicodendron radicans.

Part of what makes this so nifty to me, is that, once you think about it, it's sort of a "duh" moment. While not so great for you and I, carbon dioxide is, basically, plant food. I'm told that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere affect different plants in different ways, but poison ivy is definitely one of the winners of global warming. For this unpleasant little weed, more CO2 seems to mean more growth

But wait, it gets worse. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the Agriculture Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been studying poison ivy both in the lab and out in the natural wilds of Duke University's research forests. He says that, not only is poison ivy growing fat and happy on the spoils of our carbon emissions, but that plants getting more CO2 also produce more, and stronger, levels of urushiol---the toxin that makes the ivy so darned appealing to begin with.

In fact, while other factors like the local growing season and the amount of light the plants are getting can alter CO2's results, Ziska says we can definitely see a difference between the poison ivy of today and the stuff your parents were chasing each other around with at Camp Thankgodthekidsrouttastate 50 years ago.

Um...happy summer!

Photo courtesy quinn.anya