Poison ivy in bloom.

Poison ivy in bloom.

by Charlotte Kidd

Say the words “poison ivy” and you may reflexively scratch where you last suffered from the poison ivy rash. The body seems to remember such irritating experiences. The rash from the poison ivy oil is called contact dermatitis. Eighty to ninety percent of us get the poison ivy rash where the plant touches our skin.

Most everyone has a poison ivy story — gardener, yardener, mom, dad, Girl Scout, Boy Scout, hiker, biker, casual walker. Many of us who are allergic have more than one itching tale of woe.

My best story involves a longhaired Afghan hound, an afternoon swim in the Delaware River, and a playful nuzzle. Two days later I was covered with oozing, excruciating blisters from my chin to midriff to arms to knees to feet. I certainly hadn’t rolled in poison ivy. Guess who had? Running through fields and brush, the hound had picked up poison ivy oil on her fur. Dogs and cats don’t get the rash. Their fur and hair collect the oil though. And my skin picked up plenty from hugging my pet.

What’s Your Story?

A Sunday walk along the Wissahickon followed by lines of itchy, red blisters on calves and thighs? Red bumps mysteriously popping up on your cheeks, belly, ear lobes after snuggling with your cat…or gardening? Playing catch in the yard followed by a rash on the face, neck and upper arms of everyone who touched the ball?

Potent Poison Ivy Oil The poison ivy oil urushiol (Ur-UH-she-all) causes the rash. It doesn’t discriminate. Urushiol attaches to whatever it touches: dog and cat hair, garden tools, gloves, soccer balls, baseball bats, tee shirts, hats….and our skin.

Urushiol binds to our skin like superglue. Our body perceives the oil as dangerous. That sets off the severe allergic reaction, contact dermatitis. Usually and unfortunately, the itching and oozing start within 48 hours and can make us miserable for one to three weeks.

Poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak are in the Toxicodendron (poison tree) genus. Urushiol is in their leaves, stems, vines, roots, berries, and seeds. The oil, actually an oleoresin, stays potent for years after the plant “dies.” Leaves sprayed with herbicide turn brown and die. They’ll still hold active urushiol though. They, stems, vines and the roots underground can still cause the rash when touched.

Recognize and Remove

Most of us would rather not think about poison ivy. We ignore it. We don’t notice it. Unfortunately, we’re very likely to brush against it if we’re outdoors. In the Mid-Atlantic, poison ivy’s grows just about everywhere we hang out.

I like horticulturist Umar Mycka’s no-nonsense 3Rs approach to dealing with poison ivy. Realize where it likes to grow. Recognize the plant. Remove poison ivy oil from our skin ASAP after contact and remove the plants from the property.

Realize Where Poison Ivy Grows.

It can be in the sun. It also likes the moisture under birdbaths and leaky gutters. It thrives on dry beach dunes too. Birds eat, then drop the seeds anywhere they poop. Poison ivy is common on disturbed soil. For example, along paths and parking lots, in new housing developments, around a deck or porch or new driveway, in a garden and among shrubs.

Recognize The Plant – From Seed to Maturity

Realizing where it likes to grow will help us to avoid contact. We can anticipate, then try to steer clear or remove before it causes us trouble.

What are we looking for?

In North America, there are five species of poison ivy (Toxicodendron). Each species has a unique appearance. On the East Coast, we can focus about one — ubiquitous Eastern Climbing Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, spp. radicans). It takes two forms. The young or less vigorous, green, three-leaflet Eastern Climbing poison ivy grows low and horizontal, in our gardens and yards. Sometimes it reaches up into privets and other shrubs.

The strong, maturing or mature Eastern climbing poison ivy plant has large leaves and develops thick vines that twine up trees and stone walls. Aerial roots (radicans) sprout from the vine. They cling to the tree trunk or wall, holding the vine as it grows tall toward the sun. These towering mature vines can produce flowers and seeds.

Remove the Oil from Our Skin

The poison ivy oil urushiol quickly starts to bind to our skin — within 10 minutes of touching the plant. Immediately removing the oil can reduce, even stop, our body’s reaction that causes the rash. Experts agree we have 10 minutes for nearly complete removal. We’ve a second chance — during the 20 to 60 minutes before most of the oil adheres tightly. Removing as much possible within an hour of exposure will likely reduce the rash’s severity and spread.

Medical Alert

We can sometimes treat a small rash ourselves with an over-the-counter product or home remedy. If scratching has caused an infection or symptoms worsen, see a doctor immediately. Get medical attention if there’s swelling, trouble breathing or swallowing, the rash is on the face, the genitals or most of the body.

Remove the Plant

Mycka, a professional poison ivy removal specialist, explains that low-growing Eastern climbing poison ivy spreads horizontally. Its runners grow UNDER the English ivy. So sprayed herbicide won’t reach many poison ivy leaves. Digging out everything — leaves, stems, and roots — eliminates the problem. Complete removal’s best for vines on trees and in shrubs too.

Whether we choose herbicides or hire a professional to dig it out, removing poison ivy is important for everyone’s health and safety. Eliminating the plant from the property will help insure that we, our family, and our friends won’t touch it. then suffer from the excruciating rash.

Charlotte Kidd, M. Ed. Is a garden coach, professional gardener and independent writer. Contact her at InTheGardenWithCharlotte@gmail.com; www.InTheGardenDesign.us.