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Leaves of Three, Leave It Be

Poison Ivy Berries

Sometimes just hearing the words Poison Ivy can make people begin to itch. It’s a cruel reality that our island is rife with the three-leaved menace called Poison Ivy and it’s a shame that the deer don’t eat it!  Now that would solve at least one problem, wouldn’t it?

Rhus radicans (The Pizin, as my mother use to call it) is found in most of North America.  The offending part of this plant is urushiol oil and more than half the population is allergic to it!  Urushiol is found in every part of the plant, not just the leaves.  The roots, the stem and the berries can all give you a rash.

I’ve been very aware for my entire life that I was ‘one of the lucky ones’ in that I could be exposed and not get a rash.  I was never foolish though – whenever I came in contact with it, I would take all the necessary precautions, and even wear a head to toe spray suit when having to do some eradication. If I was exposed, I would immediately throw all my garments in the washing machine on hot, with extra laundry detergent and an extra rinse, and immediately shower with tincture of green soap.

I have at times inadvertently been exposed; knee-deep wearing sandals on the side of the New York State Thruway (a story for another day), wrestling a fence post out of the ground only to discover the other side of the post was covered with the stuff, trying to catch a run-away dog in the woods and brushing by trees that were enveloped 20 or more feet up the trunk. And I never got so much as a blister.

But I’ve also been aware that my status as ‘one of the lucky ones’ could change at any time, and in May of this year, change it did.  I was weeding my garden and kneeled right on a baby poison ivy seedling. As a result, both of my knees had a minor but very itchy rash for about a month.  Lucky?  Indeed. Some people have such a bad reaction that they need steroid shots.

How do you identify poison ivy? You will often see it climbing up trees and in large masses like in the photo above. But sometimes, it’s just a small plant. With three leaves, the middle leaf has a short stem but the two side leaves are attached directly to the vine. Sometimes the two side leaves will have a cut that makes them look like mittens. The middle leaf always sticks out more.  The main stem can become very rough and hairy when it is a couple years old.  The leaves are often shiny, but not always. It is extremely ornamental in autumn with the foliage turning bright red. Clusters of small white berries are a telltale sign too.

This year’s crop seems especially vigorous with vines flowing out over popular walking paths more than ever. Recent studies suggest that the increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere is particularly favorable for growing bigger, more vigorous and more toxic poison ivy.

So what do you do if you are exposed?  Those of you who are sensitive to Urishiol already know that sometimes there is nothing you can do. But you should at least go wash all exposed skin as soon as possible.  Wash your hands well before washing the rest of your body. Use a soap that is good at cutting grease (dish washing detergent or green soap) as it will get the oil off better than bar soap. When you wash your clothes, don’t forget to wash your shoe laces, as they can be a source of reinfection.

So how do you get rid of it? One of the better ways to eradicate large amounts of it is to get a goat. Or a sheep. I’m not kidding.  These voracious eaters are not affected by Urushiol and do a fantastic job of eradicating it.  But they will eradicate everything else, too. And when I say ‘get a goat,’ I mean ‘borrow a goat.’ If you can’t get your hands on a goat, good old-fashioned hand pulling is pretty effective. This is best done when the plant is small.  I have tried using vinegar to kill poison ivy and I have had NO success.  Repeated sprayings have had NO impact. If you need to resort to using an herbicide, be sure to follow the directions on the label and use all the proper precautions. Don’t spray when there is a breeze, don’t get it on any other plants and wear protective clothing.  There is no herbicide that is poison ivy specific, so use extreme caution if you decide that this is the route you want to take, as herbicides will damage or kill just about any plant they come in contact with.

Don’t let poison ivy stop you from enjoying the great outdoors though.  Knowing how to identify it and then staying away from it is the best prevention. Teach children to identify it so they can tell what it is even when there are no leaves. Keep your dogs on a leash when walking in an area that has lots of it.  And never, never burn a pile of ‘dead’ poison ivy that’s been pulled out of the ground.  People who are sensitive can inhale the smoke into their lungs causing severe pain! 


Deer do eat poison ivy. I have pictures to prove it.

Hilary Newell's picture

Ackboater - I'd love to see that! Are those pictures on your blog?

The deer aren't doing a very good job of clearing it out on my property! Seems they eat everything else though!

No, not on my blog. I will post them at some point, though.