Poison ivy is popping up in the woods, and in landscaping, lawns, flower beds and vegetable gardens.
The plant contains urushiol and other chemicals that cause an itchy rash that afflicts up to 50 million Americans each year. To make matters worse, Duke University researchers say poison ivy is growing more vigorously now, thanks to global warming and higher CO2 levels.
Know what to look for: Poison ivy usually grows as a vine, but can also take on a bushy form. It can grow anywhere, including in the middle of a sunny suburban yard. Its appearance changes throughout the year, and it looks confusingly like dozens of innocent plants, such as Virginia Creeper and blackberry.
As Grandma told us, poison ivy has leaves in groups of three (remember? – “Leaves of three - Let it be!”) The middle leaf typically has a longer leaf stalk than the two side leaves.
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The best way to get the hang of identification is to ask someone experienced to show you. There are also online guides, including this interactive visual quiz:
Poison ivy can also make very large, hairy vines that run up the sides of trees. These don’t always have leaves, but are filled with urushiol. When in doubt, approach any big vines with great caution.
Dress for success: Dressing to avoid poison ivy is mostly common sense, such as long pants, long sleeve shirts, rubber boots and high socks. Gloves certainly help, but must be washable or a throw-away type. You can also try applying over-the-counter anti-poison ivy blockers, available at backpacking stores and online.
Watch what you touch: No matter what you wear, if you mop your brow, you can spread the oil. If you are using garden tools, you can contaminate the handles with gloves that have contacted poison ivy. Put contaminated clothing in a bag and wash it before using again.
Remember, the plant itself does not need to be alive to transmit the oil. Even after killed with herbicide or cut, poison ivy leaves, stems and roots still are full of urushiol.
Take remedial action: The sooner you get rid of the oil after contact, the better. Wash your skin with a constant flow of water. Act quickly, since once urushiol has been absorbed into your body, washing doesn't help. After a rash erupts, try topical itch relievers, a corticosteroid, or a folk remedy such as crushed jewelweed. Try not to scratch (more good grandmotherly advice) and let the rash run its course over a couple of weeks. People differ in their response to poison ivy If you have symptoms beyond itching, see a doctor.
What you NEVER want to do: Never burn poison ivy. Burning can release the oil into the air. When inhaled, the reaction can be fatal.
Never use power equipment such as string trimmers that sends ground leaves and sap flying everywhere.
Never cuddle Fido after he’s had a romp in the woods, or wherever poison ivy is present.
Managing poison ivy: When poison ivy is growing right in our flowerbeds or at edge of the playground, most of us want to get rid of it. You can succeed in limited areas, if you remain constantly vigilant to keep it from coming back.
North Carolina State University advocates a chemical approach. When growing actively, poison ivy is vulnerable to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) as well as to other herbicides used for brush control. Be careful when using any herbicide, since it can kill your garden plants, too. NC State has step-by-step instructions online:
If you want to skip the chemicals, you can try pulling poison ivy out by hand V-E-R-Y carefully. Mike McGrath, popular past editor of Organic Gardening Magazine, has as good a guide as you can find with his PBD method (for “plastic bag dance.”):