Introducing the Most Hated Plant in America, the plant that has caused more misery, embarrassment , and disfigurement than all of the quack plastic surgeons in Costa Rica put together. Poison ivy.
Poison ivy (Toxicondendron radicans) is a rampant vine native to much of the eastern U.S. So for all you dimwits out there who proclaim native plants are always better than exotics, I say go plant yourself a patch of this stuff and lay down in it for a nap. Hey, its leaves do turn a beautiful orange-red in the fall, so it has considerable ornamental value! Coincidentally, the insanely itchy rash you’ll develop all over your skin will be pretty much the same color.
When I was a kid, my older brother, Ed, was deathly allergic to poison ivy. He couldn’t even walk within 50 feet of it without breaking out and screaming hysterically. Once, when he was about 14 or so, he got into some while we were visiting relatives. Blisters covered his whole right arm and they were oozing like a slug. He wrapped his arm with 3 thicknesses of paper towels. Within 10 minutes the towels were soaked.
It was at this strategic moment that my uncle, recognizing the affliction for what it was, pulled my brother aside and whispered, “Son, have you been doing something you’re afraid to tell your folks about?”
Ed’s first lesson on the perils of VD.
My parents finally took him to the doctor for a cortisone shot that cleared it up. Glad it wasn’t a penicillin shot — THAT would have been awkward.
The gross-out rash following contact with poison ivy (which I will NOT show here, as this is supposed to be a beautiful blog) is caused by an evil and very persistent oil called urushiol that is present in all parts of the plant. It can remain on uncleaned clothing for a year and still cause a rash upon new contact with skin. The best way to avoid the rash is to avoid the plant in the first place.
If you had a mother who cared about you, you probably remember her warning regarding poison ivy: “Leaflets three, let it be.” Each poison ivy leaf (see photos above) is composed of three leaflets. Poison ivy is often confused with another native vine (shown below) that also turns red in fall called Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). But Virginia creeper has five leaflets, not three. Except for the fact that it’s an annoying weed, the latter vine is harmless.
But how can you identify poison ivy in the winter, after it’s lost all of its leaves? Easy. Look closely at the trunk of the tree it’s climbing. Thousands of hairy, reddish-brown aerial roots (below) hold the poison ivy stem tightly to the tree bark. DON’T TOUCH THE STEM OR ROOTS. They contain urushiol and can give you poison ivy even in winter.
Poison Ivy — Myth or Fact?
Poison ivy has afflicted people for so long that a lot of old wives tales surround it. Fortunately, you have me, the Grumpy Gardener, to infallibly separate myth from reality. Let’s examine the following beliefs.
“You can get poison ivy from your pet.”
FACT. If Goebbels, Barfy, or Fleabag has been romping through woods that’s filled with poison ivy, urushiol will get on their fur and then transfer to you when you pet them. So you either have to give them a good bath (wear rubber gloves) outdoors or resolve never to pet them again. Or you could pet them using a broom.
“You can get poison ivy from Superman.”
MYTH. Superman is a comic book character.
“You can get poison ivy from drinking milk from cows that ate poison ivy.”
MYTH. Think about it. If this were possible, you’d have gotten poison ivy this way already, because no farmer with cows in the field can supervise what all the cows eat. Urushiol does not come out in the milk.
“Poison ivy is contagious.”
MYTH. Look, we’re not talking smallpox here. Poison ivy is caused by an oil, not a virus. The only way to get it from a person is by touching the oil on their skin or clothing.
“Scratching poison ivy blisters spreads the rash.”
MYTH. The ooze that comes from the blisters is not urushiol, but the gunk your body produces as part of an allergic reaction. Only spreading the oil, not the ooze, can spread the rash.
“You can get poison ivy by burning poison ivy.”
FACT. If you burn dead or living poison ivy, urushiol will contaminate the smoke. If the smoke contacts your skin, you’ll get a rash. If you breathe in the smoke, you can suffer a horrible reaction all the way down to your lungs. So don’t burn it!
“Some people are immune to poison ivy.”
PROBABLE MYTH. I used to think I was immune as a kid, because my brother always it and I never did. When I was 20, though, and convinced of my invincibility, I tore poison ivy off of a tree with my bare hands. To my amazement, I developed an agonizing rash and have been sensitive to this day. Like other allergens, urushiol may not affect you at first, but each touch puts your immune system on alert. You never know when the next touch will set it off.
Preventing Poison Ivy Rash
Like I said before, the best way to avoid a rash is to avoid the oil. Wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants while working around poison ivy and then wash your clothes in detergent. As an alternative (or supplement), coat your skin with a product like Ivy Block or Ivy-Dry Defense before you venture outdoors. These non-prescription products block the oil from reaching your skin. Or you can choose to live your life inside a protective plastic bubble, like the famous Bubble Boy on “Seinfeld.” As we all know, he never once got poison ivy, although he did lose to George at “Trivial Pursuits.” In case you don’t remember, the correct answer was, “Moops.”
Treating Poison Ivy Once You’re Dumb Enough to Get It
OK, you have poison ivy. What are you gonna do to dry up the goo and stop the infernal itching? My mother used to smear Calamine lotion on the rash. As far as I could tell, Calamine is a pink placebo. You might as well smear on Pepto-Bismol.
Country remedies abound. One says that if you feed your goat poison ivy and then drink the goat’s milk, you’ll become immune. Of course, that assumes you have a goat….and poison ivy plants….and you’re not lactose-intolerant…and you have the IQ of a beaver.
Another remedy involves soaking a cotton ball in white vinegar, then dabbing it on the blisters five times a day. Reader Trisha Davenport Hardee says this worked like a charm for her husband, although “he smelled like salad dressing.”
Sometimes when you’re out in the woods, you have to use whatever’s handy. That’s when you turn to an impatiens relative called jewel weed (Impatiens capensis).
You’ll know this plant by its pretty orange flowers (left). It grows in moist areas, often in association with poison ivy. So if you know you’ve touched poison ivy, grab some jewel weed, crush the stems, and smear the juice over the skin that was touched. It will stop the rash from forming. You can also use the juice to dry up an existing rash and relieve the itching. According to reports, the juice also relieves the irritation caused by contact with stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).
I have no evidence that jewel weed relieves the unbearable headaches one gets from listening to the incessant screaming on “The View,” but I’m willing to give it a shot.
* Use Tecnu to quickly remove urushiol from the skin before a rash begins.
* Use Ivy-Dry Cream to dry up and relieve the itching of an existing rash.