We all learned that saying as children, but it is often forgotten by young and old at annoying peril. When I was a very young child of tender years, there was a fabulous wooded “jungle” near our then suburban home with fabulous thick vines hanging down from trees — perfect for imitating Tarzan and Jane! That was my first introduction to poison ivy. Not everyone is as sensitive as am I, but most will get some level of reaction. If not the multicolored swelling and puffy closed eyes, then an itch so severe it will drive you stark raving mad. You would think I would learn my lesson, but several years later when my sister and I visited the Baltimore Zoo in October, we fed the tame deer there handfuls of colorful leaves. You guessed it — poison ivy. It took another 10 or so years for me to get hit again. Again in the Autumn, on a walk with my wonderful dog Martha through the woods in Massachusetts. My little fluffy Martha was the perfect host to pick up every drop of the Urushiol (poisonous oil) that coats the leaves and I didn’t even think about this when I nuzzled her and let her climb under the covers that chilly evening. THAT time required a trip to emergency room!
Today, I am extremely cautious about this noxious weed. As an avid gardener it is hard to avoid it, and once familiar with its habit, you become aware that it is ubiquitous and clever! Its scientific name, Toxicodendron radicans is a good indicator of danger. It spreads by runners underground and vines above ground and pops up under the leaves of your favorite plants. All parts of poison ivy are dangerous and it is very hard to eradicate if you are an organic gardener and don’t use the scorched earth pesticides available to kill it. I do what I can by donning throw away clothes that I pick up at yard sales giving me 100% coverage adding a face mask, scarf over my hair and ears, goggles and medical gloves and every Spring and Fall I go after it big time, using pliars to grasp and pull it out with, depositing it in heavy plastic bags for trash pick up.
After this, I will carefully remove all my protection, making sure it does not touch me in the removal, put them in the trash and don my favorite protection/remedy — Tecnu (which is very effective in removing the urushiol oils), rubbing it over any part of me that might have temporarily been exposed (not eyes) and then showering with good hot soapy water. The towel I use is put in the wash immediately. My clogs are “Tecnu’d” as are my pliars. And then I pray . . . seriously. If you think this is extreme, you’ve never experienced an exposure. Even the smallest patch can drive you crazy with itching and more serious exposures can blister and go on for weeks. Because I have dogs and cats that might also encounter patches, I do not pet them without applying Tecnu to my hands/arms afterward. If you do develop a rash, Tecnu has another product, Tecnu Xtreme, made of a plant called Grindelia Robusta which not only stops the reaction from spreading, but provides wonderful itch relief. And if you have a serious exposure, I’m afraid antihistimines and even cortisone treatments may be your only effective options.
Most people (85%) do have an allergic reaction if exposed. By the way, poison sumac looks very similar to poison ivy and is the one to watch out for in states outside the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Just as dangerous! And poison oak, which resembles oak leaves, grows at the base of oak trees in the Western states. When I get to Heaven, I intend to ask God what he was thinking when he created these plants (and mosquitos).
I hope this reminder is helpful. Let me know if you have other remedies or procedures for dealing with this ghastly plant. We gardeners have to share such important information.