Urushiol Pain and Products

Chinese ancestor chair
After more than a century, lacquer has cured on this Chinese ancestor chair

A week after nightly creaming my face and arms with hydrocortisone I’m still itching. Each exposure makes the reaction worse next time. A few people, including our gardener, are lucky they don’t react to poison ivy, nor wildlife or pets protected by hair or feathers. Even after cautiously walking on a woodland path or weeding, the unwary can become victims simply by cuddling a canine companion who brushed against a vine.

Poison ivy is not strictly a poisonous plant although the allegation is rooted in the scientific literature as it belongs to the genus Toxicodendron, along with poison sumac and poison oak. The allergic irritant in its leaves, stem and root is urushiol, which presumably evolved to deter to grazing animals (and gardeners). I read that trace amounts exist in mango skins. Eek!

So potent is the oil that when microscopic droplets penetrate the skin, Langerhans cells recruit ‘armed’ T-lymphocytes to fight the invader. The process kills cells as collateral damage and causes blistering, swelling and a blazing red rash. As a slight consolation, my palms and soles never react because they have thicker layers of keratin.

Wakened at night by the urge to scratch, it’s hard to find a polite word for the irritant, but urushiol has a larger story. Once used in herbal remedies when plants were the basis of the pharmacopeia, it still finds a place in traditional Chinese medicine. Its anti-tumor properties encourage researchers to overcome insolubility in water to create a medication for testing in the body. I doubt they will find volunteers for a clinical trial !

Urushiol research is mostly based in Asia where it has long been used as a lacquer for furniture and other wood products. It is collected from lacquer trees, like tapping maple trees or rubber trees. The name of the tree in Japanese gave urushiol its name. Painted in thin layers, it oxidizes and polymerizes to a hard, stable coating.

If your arms become inflamed after resting on a table made in China, it wasn’t your mom’s scold that came back to haunt you from breaking domestic etiquette. The lacquer may not have cured completely.

Next Post: Wood Stork

Happy and Grubby in the Garden

Allotment in the Wirral, UK
Drone view of allotment in the Wirral, UK (Phil Kiel: Unsplash)

I suspect former neighbors laughed from behind half-drawn curtains: “There’s a weird gardener next door who toils in the midday sun.” But I didn’t care, wearing my green hat with pride and careless if anyone thinks I’m a throwback to rustic ancestors.

Most people had a vegetable plot before the Industrial Revolution sucked them into grey cities. In medieval times, the manor divvied out strips of land for serfs to cultivate. It wasn’t gardening for recreation. Each acre provided crops to feed a family member, mostly in grains and legumes, and no space for daffs and mums in hunger times.

After the collapse of feudalism and expansion of urban living, people lost their country gardens. The prosperity that later nourished expansion of suburbs provided smaller plots, mostly for recreation and never intended for subsistence. Victory Gardens were a brief exception, but after World War 2 the loam mostly returned to lawns and flower beds. Developers earned more profit from larger houses on smaller lots. Gardens mostly served as curbside appeal.

The retreat from gardening in the 1950s and 60s was like the withdrawal from music-making around the family piano in the parlor. People had more options than grubbing in the yard on weekends or after work, while TV and record-players replaced the playing of instruments at home. Although both accomplished amateurs, our parents never made music when we were growing up. We had no pressure to learn, and our fine piano formerly played by professionals at the BBC was given away. No one thought it odd because that was the fashion and ‘progressive.’

So many pianos became redundant that piano smashing contests were held at English village fetes. Instead of fingers playing melodies of Liszt and Chopin, sledgehammers rang down on busted springs and shattered keyboards. Years later, I noticed more children having music lessons and heard it was hard to find a cheap second-hand piano. Something counted as redundant in one era may become appreciated again in another, like antique chamber pots that also went under the hammer and now prized as dainty flowerpots or for fragrant pot-pourri.

Gardening has also become resurgent, driven by appetites to grow-your-own organic food and maybe encouraged during lockdown in the pandemic. But the smaller gardens boast timid ambitions that end at the neighbor’s fence, and people in city blocks have no green space to call their own. That’s a pity when the benefits of gardening for physical and mental health are appreciated more than ever.

Some people enjoy community gardens that exist in many countries, although the distribution is spotty and only benefits the neighborhood. In Britain they are called allotments. Each lot is rented from the council by a local resident in a relationship you might call an update on lord of the manor versus serf!

Unfortunately, 80% of allotments disappeared in the past century by turning green space into concrete and asphalt. The recent upsurge in demand for them is unsatisfied. Waiting lists crawl as occupiers cling to their space until death or a job move parts them.

Turf wars spring up when councils want to sell the land for a pet project or to developers. The ranks of protesters who proclaim rights to the bounty of open land and take the moral high ground for a locavore diet are (maybe) the first signs of a peasants rebellion since 1381.

Councils look to their supporters. Some citizens regard ragged rows of crops in allotments as eyesores and don’t understand gardeners passionately gossiping about their brassicas over cups of tea in tumbledown sheds. But society’s divisions can be healed and suspicions overcome through peace offerings. My neighbors never gave a strange look again after I offered fresh, home-grown vegetables and honey.

Next Post: Eastern Bluebird

Death of a Lawn Mower

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that Americans find public expression of their successful lives in a neatly groomed lawn. Jay Gatsby was so horrified at Nick Carroway’s ragged lawn next door that he sent his gardeners over to mow the offending sward. As the nation was more prosperous by the 1920s and homes were set back from the road, owners mimicked the greens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the great estates of 17th and 18th century Britain and France. Inventions of mechanical and powered mowers to replace laborious scything offered much encouragement.

A lawn is an expensive investment, but realtors know the kerbside appeal of perfectly manicured grass helps house sales. It is a sine qua non for the modern suburbanite. Impressions of something familiar we grow up with are hard to budge, and when lost we feel bereft, but if we can step back mentally, it may be seen in new light. When I look at a ‘perfect’ lawn now my mind toggles between lawn and desert (call it cognitive dissonance if you like).

Looks more like a barren landscape on second thoughts

Why desert? Because among nuanced meanings lawns and golf courses are desolate and barren landscapes. If anything tries to nestle in a monoculture of non-native grass it is quickly doused in herbicides and pesticides, which gardeners use even more profligately than farmers. We fight frantically to conquer every weed and bug. Striving for perfection is a virtue better reserved for indoors because outside nature hates uniformity and tidiness.

Nick Carroway is more my kind of guy than his rich neighbor, although I came round lately. I am letting my lawn grow long and wild, like my hair and coronabeard. You might wonder if they are all reactions to the current contagion, yet I argue it is mindfulness and not just a lazy mower.

I love to watch knee-high stems swaying in a breeze. The sward is too dense for weeds to anchor, except the pretty polkadots of white clover and a few wildflowers on the lawn. Did I say lawn? I can now call it meadow. Deer and cottontail rabbits feed and fertilize; butterflies dance by day and lightning bugs cruise at night; goldfinches cram on seed heads; our dogs love to romp and nuzzle there. And, so, besides aesthetics and entertainment value, new and more abundant life sprouts from the death of lawn.

Ben approves of the lawn transition

It is no longer a source of noise and atmospheric pollution (gasoline mowers produce 10x more per hour than a new car). Clover is a bugbear of lawnists, but the virtuous plant boosts soil nitrogen and protects the crust in drought. Without a sprinkler system no water is wasted (more an issue in the West). Overseeding is natural and spontaneous instead of broadcast by hand from a packet, and better quality because the seeds originated from parents that thrive by natural selection. There are obvious savings from lawn chemicals, and precious time is captured from edging, raking and aerating. No more is surplus phosphate drained into streams that open into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawns only feed pride, yet their collective acreage exceeds that of any food crop in America. What a terrible waste of resource! There is still no shame cultivating a chemical lawn (not yet!), and some homeowner associations and local authorities levy outrageous penalties when people neglect their front lawn, like the retired Florida man threatened with foreclosure when he didn’t pay fines. Lest my readers worry the lawn police will turn up on my doorstep my experiment is neither overlooked by neighbors nor is it kerbside. But I still need to observe politics at home.

There is another reckoning, however, when land is left fallow, and mine will arrive later in the summer with the scorching Virginia sun. That is the time to mow, and not a light task even with a lean and keen Austrian scythe. But it will be a day for looking back with satisfaction and enjoying a rare kind of pride by mowing as our ancestors did in the great estates of yore.