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Breaking Up with Poison Ivy

Leaves of Three, Let Them Be!

Such a sweet little rhyme to help the unsuspecting learn of the dangers that lurk in the woods. I, more than most, have suffered from intimate contact with the vine for which this couplet was written and serves as a warning on how to identify Toxicodendron radicans, Eastern Poison Ivy.

At first, our meetings were rather shy. I may have brushed up against the vigorous tree climber, or perhaps rolled on the edge of a meadow – right where those little tendrils love to venture out into the sunlight. I may have just petted our family dog who had been romping in the woods near our house the way dogs used to do.

There really was no telling how we met, until the next morning.

What usually started as an itch between my fingers would quickly turn into a line of tiny blisters, almost like a scratch – that I would of course rub and rub. But poison ivy rash – known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, doesn’t just want to meet you and be on its way. Oh no, this rash wants to have a summer fling.

And that’s just what we did year after miserable year.

I would go crying to my mom when the side of my face was unrecognizable or my hands had ballooned into clubs and she would rub me down with calamine lotion. Somehow it was better to be dotted with baby pink than just oozing from the angry rash. A few times we sought professional help, but the best that can be done is a steroid pill that calms the inflammation. Nothing cures it. And so I spent many a night wishing I’d never met that persistent suitor, but meet we always did. So let me give you the round up on how to end this bad romance.

If you’re like me, avoiding the great out of doors is not an option, so the next best thing is learning to differentiate which leaves of three to watch out for. It’s easy, really, when you see the big hairy vine growing up a tree; less so, when the little leaves are just poking out with all the other little leaves in the spring. In fact, poison ivy leaves even come out rather reddish brown at first and blend in on the forest floor. So here is what I’ve learned that I hope can help you avoid those naïve mistakes.

Poison ivy starts out small and hides on the edges of the woods or a path – so stick to the cleared areas. Once you get in the forest, the plant is trying to get to the sunlight and adheres to trees, big and small. You can literally mistake branches of the vine for tree branches until you look up and see the tree is an oak or a hickory or some leaf at the top that is different from the one reaching out at shoulder height. For this reason, it is classified an ‘edge grower.’

And just by brushing up against any part of the plant will likely transfer the oils that cause the rash. It’s the oils that can then be spread around from the original spot to anywhere – and I do mean anywhere – your fingers touch once they’ve touched it – be it the plant or the oil on you, your clothes, your dog, etc.

But don’t be alarmed! It is my experience that if you get to some soap and water and vigorously wash your skin (take care to use a wash cloth and get everywhere – even behind your ears) that’s come in contact with the plant within 6 hours, you will likely not get the rash – at least not the awful, oozing blisters that will scar you for a season (the red marks typically go away within a year). Wash your clothes too.

I have literally fallen off my bike in the woods, landed face-first in a patch of poison ivy and washed up thoroughly when I got home and been poison-ivy free. I will mention, though, that the other day I had likely contact so I washed when I got home. I wasn’t as thorough as usual and I have a little patch under my eye as I write this. A little hydrocortisone cream seems to be working fine – even though I still prefer calamine when I get a big patch because the alcohol mixed in with the pink stuff helps dry out the rash.

Now I’ve seen poison ivy growing all over yards and landscaped areas, too, and often wonder how people don’t know it, but apparently 15% of people are not allergic to urushiol. Those lucky individuals can hike through poison ivy all day with little or no consequences. The remaining 85% will notice some reaction to poison ivy, with about 25% of us suffering a severe reaction to the plant. It’s even been reported that deaths have been attributed to breathing in the fumes of burning poison ivy.

On that note, here are just a few more identifiers besides the obvious 3-leaves that are lobed on the tip – not saw-toothed:

  • Leaves that are reddish-brown and shiny in spring, turning to green in the summer (start small and can grow to bigger than your hand), then changing color to a yellow or orange in the fall before dropping off

  • Sprays of small white flowers

  • Berries white, take flight! Heavy clusters of green berries, turning white with a waxy texture as fall approaches

  • Poison ivy and mangoes belong to the Anacardiaceae family. Some folks will get the dermatitis on their cheeks when touching the skin of sliced mango. Just remove the peels.

And while “one's man's pain is another man’s pleasure” so goes for wildlife and poison ivy. They love it. The berries that come out in the fall feed more than sixty species of birds and the leaves can be eaten by deer, bear and raccoons. I have even read that small mammals and lizards use the fine aerial roots – that make the plant appear as if it is hairy – as a tree trunk highway.

They can have it!

Just as one has to learn how to recognize a good from a bad friend, a healthy from an unhealthy relationship, time is a patient teacher. And I realize it’s virtually impossible to learn from someone else’s mistakes, so one good practice is to shower at night in the summer – not only will you avoid spreading the oils to your bed and pillow, you’ll have that nice cool, refreshing feeling when you slip under the sheets.

If you want to test your PI (Poison Ivy) identifying prowess, click here. This is a fun site with lots of poison ivy facts and reader questions. Good luck avoiding this guy ;)

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