Poison ivy does not grow in France. Unlike the tomato, the avocado, the potato, and the sunflower, this product of the New World has just never taken root in the soil of Europe. This is nothing to complain about, especially if you like to make love al fresco.
Gardeners and hikers are as susceptible to the nasty rash of poison ivy as are the passionate, or merely randy, but they have consented to get in touch with nature, after all. That’s why they’re rooting around in the garden or yodeling their way up Mont Blanc. The lover, suddenly overcome by a desire, does not, as I know too well, pick the time and place. It’s fine when the desire, the mood, and the opportunity all coincide—and particularly when they come together in a comfy bedroom. That is not always the case.
I’ll be the last one to blame anyone if everything coincides somewhere else, like a park. This has not traditionally been the outlook in Paris. In the 19th century, one of Paris’s great reformers (whose name, lucky for him, is lost to history or at least my memory) decided that there was altogether too much public copulation in the parks. How much copulation was too much was not defined, but it could be that one copulation more than zero was too much for the bureaucrat, in private as well as public.
After all, the parks were part of Baron Haussmann’s vision of Paris, but they were visions, something noble (which means not quite here or in the flesh), not do-it-yourself maisons de rendezvous where they rent rooms by the minute. Worse than that, the parks were free, so there wasn’t even any capitalist angle to getting it on (and getting off) sur le gazon. It may have been even more frustrating to the officials in charge that people who were prone and supine protested that they had not disobeyed the signs that forbade walking on the grass, since they were clearly not walking and what they were doing is nearly impossible to do while walking.
I imagine that the back and forth between the officials and the lovers got tiresome for both sides, but the lovers had better things on their minds, so just tried to find slightly more secluded spots in the Jardin du Luxembourg and hoped for the best.
The mind of the bureaucrat is more restless and needs less sleep. This is a well known pity and shame, but that’s the way it is. And that is how the bureaucrat whose name is gone remembered reading about the “ivy that is poisonous” (there is no French version of poison ivy), and sent off to America for a large shipment.
To his great delight, all the sailors, stevedores, and gardeners who handled the miserable stuff got terrible rashes, mainly on their hands and arms. M. le Bureaucrate was thinking of blisters elsewhere as he directed his staff to plant poison ivy all over the lawns and among the trees of the Luxembourg, which evidently was copulation central in those days, though the Tuileries and the Bois de Boulogne were also planted, but not so thickly.
Then he waited for the plants to send down roots and spread. Spring, he thought, will bring a fine crop of the ivy that is poisonous and we can say Adieu to the copulation that is public. He continued to wait. Had he not died some years later, he would still be waiting because poison ivy won’t grow here. It dies. And it dies without drama. The plants just fall apart and the wind carries away their remains.
There was, after this failure, a clever experiment with signs reading, “Beware the ivy that is poisonous,” but either Parisian copulators (or people plotting, forgive the expression, sex) could not read or had no idea what the ivy that is poisonous might mean. And who could imagine anything as nasty as cultivating a rash-giving weed in a lovely public park in order to damage people who wanted nothing more than a little pleasure—and were doing so in the park rather than in the streets in order not to scare the horses or distract from commerce?
It is a relief to know that hybrids of poison ivy have also failed to grow in Paris. The parks are still safe for copulation.
© Joseph Lestrange