I knew nothing of Seguin Island until my friend Eben took us (me & my 10 year old son) there to pick up a mooring for the night. On the sail out from Portland, we had our fingers crossed that there would be a space for us, considering there are only a handful of moorings for guests.
We thanked the stars for the gift of a mooring in the beautiful sheltered cove, hugged by a small cliff dense with evergreens, Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), and Birch (Betula species). We swiftly shuttled ourselves to shore, secured the dinghy, and climbed the rocks and steps to the firm earth above the beach.
The first plant I spotted was Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and I was so happy to see her! She’s a good friend to have around for many reasons. On the practical side of things, Jewelweed is an effective remedy for skin irritations, most notably from Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) rash. The second thought I had upon seeing her was, where’s the Poison Ivy? The two tend to live in similar niches – moist woodland edges or riparian zones.
Jewelweed can be infused in oil and made into a salve, but because of the high moisture content, the oil can easily spoil. So another method for preserving the medicine of this plant is to blend the leaves and stems with a little water and pour the mixture into ice cube trays. These Jewelweed ice cubes are doubly cooling and soothing to skin conditions, be it heat rash, bug bite, or – as mentioned before – Poison Ivy rash.
This is a plant I have a deep relationship with – let’s just say she spoke to me and opened me up spiritually in ways I didn’t think possible. So coming across Jewelweed felt like a comforting welcome. And then we met Lee, one of the caretakers of Seguin. Lee made us feel right at home, and she did not hesitate to offer to show us the island and the lighthouse.
We made the short hike up the slope, barefoot on the soft grass, and embraced by the shade of all kinds of shrubs, including native Roses (Rosa species) and Elder (Sambucus nigra), as well as herbaceous plants like Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea). Jewelweed continued to show up, and I kept wondering where the Poison Ivy was. Lee assured me we’d find it if we knew where to look.
She took us to the lighthouse and as luck would have it, the sun was shining for the first time in a while and we got a spectacular view of the island from the top.
After exploring we chatted a while with Lee and Rick (Lee’s partner in caretaking and life) about the island’s history.
We stayed the night in the peaceful cove and I woke before sunrise to take in the beauty around us. From the deck of the boat, I watched Osprey perching in their nest and a paddling of 12 Ducks swimming around and then climbing the rocks. I listened to songbirds calling the world awake in their dawn chorus.
Before the sun broke the horizon, I caught the Moon setting behind the tall trees on the cliff. I looked longingly up at those trees, hoping to get a closer look in the new day.
I got my wish. After breakfast we set off to explore the trails around the island. We walked down to Cobble Stone Beach, observing plants, and scats, and tracks along the way. Then made our way back up to the lighthouse and helicopter launch to walk the forested North Trail. It was a relief to be surrounded by the cooling shade and transpiration of the tall trees. I was delighted to come across soft-needled fir trees and inhale their delicious fragrance. We even came across a little bit of Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) one of my favorite ephemeral medicinal plants.
But still, no Poison Ivy.
I came to Lee with my question and she promptly brought us to a spot where she was working to diminish this rash-inducing plant.
Ah, there she is!
It might sound strange, but I consider this plant a friend. I understand why some would not see things my way. There’s a percentage of people who have a very strong reaction to Poison Ivy’s irritating urushiol oil. There’s also a small percentage who have no reaction at all, and the vast majority develop at least some level of skin irritation. Interestingly, Poison Ivy is used as a homeopathic remedy for rashes! If you’re curious to know more, the homeopathic preparation goes by the old scientific name for this plant, Rhus tox (short for Rhus toxicodendron).
Poison Ivy is also important survival food for birds, as the berries are very hardy and withstand the cold of winter.
I see Poison Ivy as a plant who reminds us to be aware of where and how we stand and walk. She’s also a protector of boundaries, in the wilderness and of wild beings. She thrives in areas disturbed by human activity. When she shows up, it’s Mother Nature’s way of saying, do not disturb. If you’re intrigued by this fascinating native plant, I recommend checking out the book In Praise of Poison Ivy: The Secret Virtues, Astonishing History, and Dangerous Lore of the World’s Most Hated Plant by Anita Sanchez. It’s a great read!
The sun somehow felt hotter after visiting Poison Ivy. We made our way down back to the beach and with gratitude, I immersed myself in the cool water of the mooring cove and swam away from the island to the boat.
Seguin Island is forever etched in my memory, thanks to Lee and Rick and all of the life thriving on that beautiful rock.
How to identify Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy is a highly adaptable plant that varies in appearance depending on growing conditions. You may have heard the old phrase, “leaves of 3, let it be.” The truth is, there are a lot of plants with 3 leaves, or, in most cases (as in this one), 3 leaflets of one compound leaf. One of the things that makes the leaves of Poison Ivy special is that the terminal (or center) leaflet has a longer stem than the 2 opposing or parallel leaflets.
The other traits that differentiate Poison Ivy are variability and leaflet individuality. When you look closely (but don’t touch!), you’ll notice that each leaflet has a unique presentation. Look at the margins (edges) of the plant. In general, the leaflets are toothed, but some appear smooth or just have a wavy edge. Each leaflet has its own toothy-ness independent of the other leaflets on the same leaf. Like a fingerprint, no two leaflets are alike.
Also, the leaves can be shiny, and sometimes not. They can be tinged red, and sometimes not! (The young ones are usually both.)
The berries of Poison Ivy are a light creamy white to yellow color, as are the small five petaled flowers.
While Poison Ivy does generally present as a vine, it can creep along the ground in the edges, pop up in the grass on occasion, and of course, cling to trees. I’ve even seen Poison Ivy that I almost didn’t recognize as such standing straight up amidst other shrubs, as if mimicking them!
She is a highly mutable shape shifter, and that’s part of the reason I love her so. Not enough to rub up against her, but enough to respect that she has a purpose, just like all forms of life on our home planet.
Liz Neves is the author of Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness (Timber Press). She has been studying medicinal plants for over 15 years and leads regular plant walks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. You can find her online at gatheringground.nyc, on Instagram @gatheringground and on Facebook @gatheringnyc.