Few plants spark fear in the hearts of mankind like Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac.
The blistering rash caused by poison ivy is the result of direct contact with the oily toxin called urushiol ( pronounced u-ROOSH-i-ol) .
Urushiol can be found in every part of the plant.
The plant must be injured to release the oil. But this could be something as insignificant as an insect bite to a leaf.
This sticky, oily substance is easily transferred to other parts of the body by touch. Pet fur, garden tools, gloves, clothes or anything coming in contact with the plant can be a culprit.
It is a myth that touching the oozing blisters will spread the poison on you or to another person. And don’t think you are “out of the woods” because you never experienced a reaction. People may become allergic later in life after repeated exposure.
Anyone who has ever suffered from an encounter with these masters of disguise, knows they take many forms and can be hard to identify.
Poison ivy, as the name implies, grows as a vine along fences, up trees and even across open fields.
But a vine is not the only form this plant assumes.
Poson ivy like poison oak can be that strange woody shrub lurking in the corner of your yard.
So how can you tell if it is indeed poison?
- The old adage, “leaves of three, let it be” can be taken one step further. The center leaflet is usually larger than the two side leaflets and the compound leaf grows on alternate sides of the plant. Flowers are greenish-white and the berrylike fruit is also white. Fall paints the plant with bright red leaves.
- Other plants often get innocently blamed for being poison. Here’s some ways to tell the difference:
- Fragrant sumac has red, fuzzy berries, not white.
- Raspberries can be identified by their thorns.
- Box Elder will also have more than three leaves per stem.
- Virginia Creeper which is non-poisonous, also has 5 leaflet leaves on a stem.
If you unfortunately come in contact with the plant oil, change your clothing immediately and rinse the area with cool water. Warm or hot water tends to spread the oil. If you are in the woods, take advantage of a nearby creek or stream. Do not wash the infected clothes with the rest of the wash,and be sure to clean the washer afterwards. Never, ever burn poison ivy or wood that has come in contact with it. The oil will vaporize and if inhaled can be fatal.
But poison ivy is not harmful to wildlife, in fact, it is an important source of food for many species.
Some farmers use goats to help keep the poison in check. But this will still not eradicate it.
The only way to accomplish control is with perseverance. It will take several tries before you rid an area of this persistent pest.
Pull or dig out plants in early spring or fall. Pull when the soil is moist. Remember to wear protective clothing and gloves. Cut and remove vines that are growing on trees.
Even if you choose to use a herbicide, it will take several applications before the plant does not return. Some people have reported having luck with full strength vinegar either sprayed on or poured at the plant base. Mixing in citrus oil will help the vinegar “stick” to the plant. But be careful to only apply herbicides to the poison plants and not near any landscape or garden plants.
Spray only on a calm day and according to label directions.
Some unusual facts about Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac:
- Only 1 nanogam (billionth of a gram) is needed to cause a rash
- 1/4 ounce of urushiol is enough to cause a rash in every person on earth!
- The toxin can last on samples of plants for hundreds of years.
- 500 people could itch from the amount of oil that fits on the head of a pin!
- Dead plants can be active in the wild for decades!
- The Japanese painted the oil on surfaces as a way to deter and identify thieves.
- Not every remedy works on everyone.