No Ill Nature: The Surprising History and Science of Poison Ivy and Its Relatives

Detail of an illustration of poison ivy from Otto Wilhelm Thomé's 1885 book, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus. (The Graphics Fairy)

Detail of an illustration of poison ivy from Otto Wilhelm Thomé's 1885 book, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. (

An Ocean of Calamine Lotion

Many flowers have been celebrated in popular songs—the ever-romantic rose, the fragrant orange blossom, even the dainty buttercup. Poison ivy seems to be an unlikely candidate for this pantheon, but the rash-inducing plant has a minor yet enduring place in pop music, thanks to a hit song first recorded by the rhythm-and-blues group the Coasters in 1959. Its creators, lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, are famed for the Elvis Presley tunes “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” and for cowriting the classic ballad “Stand by Me” with singer Ben E. King.

Set to a peppy beat with a wailing chorus, the clever lyrics of “Poison Ivy” describe a woman who seems at first to be like a flower: “She comes on like a rose” and is “pretty as a daisy,” but will “really do you in / if you let her get under your skin.” The effects of other diseases cannot compare.

As Leiber later recalled, “Pure and simple, ‘Poison Ivy’ is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease—or the clap [gonorrhea]—hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top Ten in the spring of 1959. But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. We were having fun.”

The song’s sexual overtones may have enhanced its popularity. More than a dozen different musicians or groups have recorded the tune, including the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Linda McCartney, and the 1990s boy band Hanson. A version by pioneering Australian pop group Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs even “out-Beatled the Beatles” (as a Sydney television host put it), topping the national charts in June 1964 during the Fab Four’s only tour of that country.

The plant has lent its name to several other pop songs; to a 1992 movie thriller about a murderous teen (with the tagline “What Ivy wants, Ivy gets”) and its erotic sequels; to the lead guitarist of the punk-rock group the Cramps; and perhaps most famously to the sexy super-villainess of the Batman comics, whose alter ego is a brilliant botanist and who uses plant pheromones and toxins to hypnotize, seduce, and kill her enemies. Poison ivy’s association with alluring yet dangerous femininity will undoubtedly continue to twine through popular culture.— Jane E. Boyd and Joseph Rucker

Art historian Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., works as an independent curator and a freelance writer and editor in Philadelphia. Joseph Rucker, Ph.D., a biochemist, is the director of research and development at Integral Molecular, a Philadelphia biotechnology firm. The authors would like to thank Michael Gross, Joel T. Fry, and Anne Boyd.

In the printed version of this article, we incorrectly transliterated Rikou Majimas name. We regret this error.