Leaves of three, let it be. We’ve often heard this little proverb in reference specifically to poison ivy. But we all know there are many other plants with three leaves that aren’t poison ivy.
The poison ivy I’m familiar with is known as Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicondendron radicans) and is actually native to Eastern North America. If any part of this plant is touched (leaves, stems, flowers, roots), it can cause an itchy, irritating and sometimes painful rash caused by the organic compound uroshiol in the plant’s sap.
Poison Ivy “can grow as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees and poles. Each leaf has three glossy leaflets, with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.” (FDA)
Poison ivy rashes cannot be spread from person to person, but can be picked up from plant oil on clothing, pets, garden tools, garden gloves, boots and other items which have touched these plants. The plant oil can linger indefinitely on a surface until it is washed off with soap and water or wiped off with alcohol.
Poison ivy, though native, is often thought of as an invasive noxious weed — primarily because it can be so harmful to humans. (It doesn’t seem to affect animals in the same way it does humans.) When removing poison ivy, take every precaution to not expose your skin to its parts. Cutting and painting stems brings you in contact with the plant, so in this instance, an application of herbicide might be most appropriate — being mindful of overspray, etc. I do not recommend using a string trimmer of a mower to eradicate this plant. Both could cause the oil to spray and worse yet, to disperse the plant material in many different directions only to become a irritant in a lesser form later.
- For those of us who are sensitive to uroshiol, here are a few suggestions for help.
- If available, wash the area affected with soap and water before it can be absorbed by the skin. 50% of the uroshiol can be absorbed within 10 minutes of touching.
- If soap and water is not handy, look for some nearby native Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Breaking the stems of this plant will provide you with a watery sap which will relieve the itching and irritation caused by the poison ivy.
- Back at home, try an oatmeal compress. Just add enough water to make a thick paste and plaster it on the affected area — kinda like playing in the mud when you were a kid….
- There are also a number of topical lotions and creams available. According to the FDA use products that contain zinc acetate, carbonate or oxide. Calamine Lotion or Hydrocortisone Cream come to mind.
- Oral antihistamines may also help. Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) or Zyrtec (Cetirizine) can help to reduce itching.
- Lastly, try an old-fashioned home remedy — baking soda. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends finding relief by adding a cup of baking soda to the tub before getting in for a good soak.
In researching for this article, I found the Poison Ivy website. Besides a lot of useful information, it also had a very helpful quiz on how to recognize poison ivy from other plants. Give it a try, and don’t forget to click all the yellow buttons under each photo to see the answers.
Thanks to Kathy Jones for making me aware of this quiz.
Donna VanBuecken says
Toni Stahl who writes Nature Scoop writes: A possible tip for poison ivy — catch it when it is small. Turn a doubled plastic sack inside out, put your hand in the sack and pull the poison ivy out. Then pull the sack right-side out without touching any parts of the plant. The sack should protect your skin from getting any of the itchy oil on it. That’s what we do here in Ohio, and it’s worked.
Donna VanBuecken says
Thanks, Toni, for the great hint. I don’t see how one could go wrong using your suggested technique to eradicate poison ivy. But, don’t forget to discard into the garbage. I’ve read the smoke from burning debris such as poison ivy can introduce the oils into the air which can be just as harmful, and composting just delays spreading the oils until another time.
Christian Nelson says
Because of two times I got heavy-duty cases of poison ivy while out canoeing, I don’t want to get within even a mile of poison ivy. Scares me even to think about it.
Donna VanBuecken says
I can sympathize, Christian. I’ve had a bad case or two of my own. Touch-me-not or Jewelweed was a great help in relieving the itching. See Jewelweed Friend or Foe.