Poison Ivy: Identification, Eradication, and Treatment

Reader Contribution by Michael Feldmann
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Probably the most unwanted weed, poison ivy affects more than 350,000 people annually in the United States. Farmers, gardeners, and people who have even any plot of land, both rural and urban, are most likely faced with the problem of eradicating this harmful weed.

Despite its name, poison ivy is not a member of the ivy family (Hedera) but rather a member of the Anacardiaceae plant family, also known as the cashew or sumac family. Believe it or not, it’s actually a relative of cashews, pistachios, and mangoes. This glossy perennial can spread by seeds transmitted by birds, or by producing shoots from its extensive under-ground stems. Poison ivy grows on sandy, stony, or rocky shores, and sprouts in thickets, in clearings, and along the borders of woods and roadsides.

All parts of the poison ivy plant, including the roots, contain the poisonous resin urushiol. Contact with any broken part of the plant, or simply touching the plant, may cause a reaction. Pet fur can also transmit the sap, though the pets themselves are not affected. Urushiol can remain active for several years, on many surfaces and therefore is present on dry leaves and branches of the plant.

Poison ivy greatly benefits from increased carbon dioxide in the air: higher Co, levels make the plant, Digger, and more harmful.

Description and Range

Newfoundland is the only province in Canada where poison ivy is absent. Illustration by Mary Peterson

Poison ivy can be found in every province of Canada except Newfoundland. It can grow as a shrub, climbing vine, or ground cover, and the branches of older vines can even be mistaken for tree limbs. The character of growth varies according to location and type. Western poison ivy (Toxicodendron Rydbergii) usually grows as an erect shrub, while Eastern poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) grows as climbing or trailing vine. As the names suggest, “Western poison ivy” predominates in Western Canada, while “Eastern Poison ivy” predominates in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

The leaves of poison ivy grow in clusters of three, with the middle leaflet being on a much larger stalk. The leaflet edges can be smooth or toothed and can vary on the same stem or plant. They are always pointed and alternate, and when newly unfolded are reddish to bronzy green. They are deciduous, and become an orange-red to wine-red in autumn. The stems are woody, and when climbing on the trunk of a tree develop aerial rootlets.

From May to July the plant produces small erect greenish-white flowers that are followed by greyish-white berry-like fruits in clusters from August to November. The fruits last throughout the winter and are commonly consumed by birds. Many mammals, including bears, moose, foxes, deer, rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, muskrats, woodrats, and mice, also consume the leaves, stems, and fruit.

 Identification

It’s important to know how to identify poison ivy in all seasons. Illustration by Sam Feldman

Identification is very important and is here separate from the description so as to highlight the telltale signs and combinations of signs that are easy to remember and help identify the plant rather than describe it. Four characteristics are sufficient to identify poison ivy in most situations: (a) clusters of three leaflets, (b) alternate leaf arrangement, (c) lack of thorns, and (d) separate stems connected to the main vine for each group of three leaflets.

Another quite distinguished characteristic is the asymmetry of individual leaves and the varieties of smooth, toothed, and lobed leaf edges on the same branch or plant.

There are also various easy to remember mnemonic rhymes that help identify poison ivy:

Leaves of three, let it be is the best known and most useful cautionary rhyme. It applies to poison oak as well as to poison ivy. However, some other innocuous plants have similar leaves. Other rhymes include: Hairy vine, no friend of mine; Berries white, run in fright; and Berries white, danger in sight.

 Eradication

There are several ways of removing poison ivy. Illustration by Paul Anderson

There are several ways of removing poison ivy.

Carefully dig the plant out. In order for this method to be effective, the plant must be removed fully with the roots, as any piece of root or stem can produce a new plant. Make sure to wear protective clothing and cover all bare skin and face while digging and handling the plant. Because poison ivy easily spreads from plant fragments, it is best to dispose of it in a plastic bag. Caution! Do not attempt to burn the plant, as this releases urushiol into the air and can affect the lungs! The place could then be treated with herbicide. Frequent tilling of the soil can also help reduce the ability for the plant to produce new shoots.

Cover and weight. Another mechanical way of eliminating poison ivy is to cover it with some material that does not let light through and put some weight on top. This method may not always work but does not require to come in contact with the plant.

Herbicides. It is also common to use herbicides to eliminate poison ivy. Herbicides that contain triclopyr will effectively work on poison ivy. Caution! Some herbicides made to treat poison ivy may contain glyphosate. Recent studies have shown that glyphosate likely causes severe health problems! Closely following the directions on the package and spray herbicides directly on the leaves of the plant. Though grasses and conifers are tolerant of Triclopyr, be careful when applying near broadleaf plants. If the poison ivy is growing up a tree trunk, be careful not to spray the bark as this may damage the tree.

Homemade leaf spray. If you don’t want to use chemicals there is also a natural way of treating poison ivy. An easy homemade herbicide can be made by mixing three pounds of salt, a gallon of water, and a quarter-cup of dish soap. The resulting homemade herbicide should be sprayed directly on the leaves of the plant. It is best to use it on a clear day so that it could do its job before it could be washed away by rain. Frequently apply this solution until the plant is fully eliminated.

How to Prevent and Cure Poison Ivy Rashes

As everyone knows, poison ivy can cause a painful rash. Statistics indicate that 85 percent of Canada’s population has an allergic reaction to poison ivy. The remaining 15 percent may not respond to poison ivy on the first encounter. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to poison ivy appear approximately 24 to 48 hours after contact with plant. After this, lesions may appear: Inflammation, swelling, and blistering. Symptoms may be more severe in people who have had a significant allergic reaction to poison ivy in the past.

The first thing to do if you have come in contact with poison ivy is to wash your hands. Recent researches have shown that urushiol on skin could be fully eliminated if washed properly within 2 to 8 hours of exposure (the sooner the better). This is done best by applying alcohol and thoroughly washing the hands with soap and constantly rubbing with a sponge or cloth. Hot water should not be used, as it causes the pores in the skin to open up and admit the oils from the plant. Be sure to wash the elbow and between the fingers, this is the places where poison ivy rashes commonly occur. It is best to wash three times.

If the rashes have already appeared, there are several methods to cure them listed below.

There are a variety of natural ways to treat the painful poison ivy rash. Illustration by Paul Anderson

Calamine lotion: Calamine is a safe, cheap, and easy to get, over-the-counter remedy. It was approved by the FDA as effective for treating poison ivy symptoms.

Using wet compress or soaking in cool water: A safe method recommended by the FDA.

Burrows Solution: Burrows solution is an over-the-counter remedy approved by the FDA as effective for treating poison ivy symptoms.

Jewel Weed: A mash made from the thick stems of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) can effectively treat poison ivy symptoms.

Baths with: Finely ground Oatmeal or Epsom salt: Baths soaked with oatmeal or Epsom salt are an effective remedy to treat poison ivy symptoms.

Banana Peel: The “meat” on the inside of the banana peel quickly relieves itching and is a remedy for poison ivy symptoms. Though the urushiol should be first washed away with soap or alcohol in order for this method to be effective. Apply this remedy two to three times a day for a week.

Mint Flavored Toothpaste: Apply on the rash, let dry and then wash away with water. This should be done three to two times daily until the rash disappears.

Aloe Vera: Apply on the rash, let dry and then wash away with water. Repeat several times daily.

Baking Soda: Place a cotton gauze soaked in a mixture of baking soda and water on the rash and wait fifteen minutes. Clean with water. Repeat three to four times daily for a week.

Apple Cider Vinegar: Place a cotton gauze soaked in a mixture of two tablespoons vinegar to one cup water on the rash and wait fifteen minutes. Clean with water. Repeat two to three times daily for a week.

Oils: Most oils are effective in treating poison ivy rashes. They should be applied three times daily for a week.

Michael Feldmannis a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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