By Lori Freed
Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans or Rhus radicans, is ubiquitous. It can literally grow anywhere there is soil, enough sun and a place for a seed to develop. Urban gardens, forests, parks, soccer fields, beaches – EVERYWHERE!!!
Poison ivy is not poisonous. It is quite harmless to everything except sensitive humans. Birds love the white berries. Goats and other livestock can graze on it and do. Animals eat the berries, leave droppings elsewhere, and new plants emerge.
Urushiol, the oil present in all parts of the plant from root to leaf tip, is the organic allergen and villain of this piece. Direct contact with skin of a sensitive human causes the person’s immune system to send a message to the lymph nodes that send a message back to the skin in the form of an itchy, blistering rash.
People who immediately realize they have been exposed have about 10 minutes to reduce the effects of the urushiol. Washing with COLD water and Dawn Dishwashing Liquid for at least five minutes can break down and remove the oil from the skin. Do not wash with warm water because that will open pores and allow the urushiol to enter the skin. Carrying alcohol swabs with you when you are in woodsy areas is a good idea. The alcohol can remove much of the urushiol and minimize the reaction.
Unfortunately most people do not know they have been exposed until they develop the rash. This is because they either do not know how to identify poison ivy or the urushiol was spread to them from a secondary source (e.g., petting a dog or cat that’s rolled in it, removing shoes after treading on the plant, reusing contaminated gardening tools, sports or camping equipment, etc.)
It takes years for urushiol to lose its potency, so it is very important to wash all contaminated clothing, gardening tools or camping equipment very well so the rash does not recur. It is also extremely important to never toss poison ivy in a compost pile or burn it.
How to Remove Poison Ivy from Landscape
Vinyl or leather gloves
Closed toe shoes
Heavy duty lawn bags
Personal protective equipment is essential when removing poison ivy from your landscape. Wear goggles and cover as much skin as possible. (All exposed skin can be coated in a barrier cream containing bentoquatam, like IvyBlock.) Tuck your pants into your socks and duct tape in place to prevent gaps. Also duct tape the gaps where sleeve meets glove. Take care not to wipe sweat with the sleeve of your shirt. It is better if the ground is moist to allow for easier removal of the roots. Pull from the base to uproot as much of plant as possible. Immediately bag the uprooted plants and send it to the landfill. DO NOT COMPOST OR BURN POISON IVY. Urushiol takes years to break down rendering any compost useless, and it may become airborne when burned, entering eyes and airways and harming your neighbors. Poison ivy has a tendency to return. A heavy layer of mulch can prevent sunlight from touching the remnants, effectively killing it without the use of harsh herbicides. If something more drastic is required, carefully apply a glyphosate-based weed killer like Roundup directly and exclusively to the poison ivy. Wait a few days for the herbicide to migrate to the roots and then remove the dead plants using the above precautions. Wash anything you cannot throw away (e.g., shoes, tools, etc.) with something that will remove the oil such as Dawn Dishwashing Liquid or mineral spirits. It is probably a good idea to replace shoelaces.
Identifying Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy can grow as a vine, shrub or single plant. The leaf pattern is three leaflets with the middle leaflet being slightly larger than the outside leaflets. The stem of the middle leaflet is also a little longer than that of the outside leaflets. In vine or shrub form the leaves alternate along the stem. New leaves are reddish. Leaves can be shiny or dull. Color of mature leaves varies from light to dark green with reddish tones in fall. Poison ivy never has thorns but can be hairy, especially the larger vines found twining around trees. Remember, every part of the plant contains urushiol.