Monday, May 3, 2010

Poison Iiiiiii-vy! Yikes!

Yup. It’s that time of year again when that dreaded vine sneaks its way into picnics and foraging expeditions. In reality, poison ivy can be a nuisance any time throughout the year, but this is the season when the leaves spring back to life, so what was once a fibrous “rope” masquerading as a rather inconspicuous, harmless albeit hairy vine hugging the trunk of a tree (which can be the size of an arm) turns into a lush leafy structure that pops up in unexpected locations—even urban gardens—this time of year. Poison Ivy is widely adaptable and can be found growing as a trailing vine across the ground, over buildings, and sneaks its way into flowerbeds and shrubbery. It may grow close to the ground, but can also be found trailing overhead. It will happily grow right next to the harmless Virginia Creeper.

Anywhere from 8 to 48 hours after coming into contact with any part of the poison ivy, you’ll know whether you’re sensitive to this plant or not. Some lucky folks aren’t. MM, for example, seems to lack the PI-sensitive gene. Unfortunately, I fall into the other camp, and within a few hours of encountering even the least little contact with it, I break out in that characteristic rash that simply drives me wild! The itch lasts for days. Little relief comes from commercial “stop-the-itch” creams, or at least relief doesn’t last very long.. Best antidote I’ve found is to apply an aloe leaf to the affected area. It takes about 20 minutes for the aloe’s soothing affect to kick in, but once the itchy “fire” is put out, relief lasts for several hours.

Here is a wonderfully informative website on POISON IVY Poison Ivy is a member of the Cashew family (I definitely prefer the nut!)

The Itch is caused by a component called Urushiol oil. Only one nanogram (billionth of a gram) is needed to cause a rash. The average exposure is 100 nanogams.

Five hundred people could itch from the amount covering the head of a pin, while one-quarter ounce would cause a reaction in every person on earth. Specimens of Urushiol several centuries old have been found to cause dermatitis in sensitive people. The name "Urushiol is derived from the Japanese name for lacquer. When the Japanese restored the gold leaf on the Temple of Kyoto, they painted the Urushiol lacquer on it to preserve and maintain the gold. (It could have been a good deterrent against thievery, too!)

According to experts, Urushiol reactions are the most common form of allergy in the U.S.

Out here, JOTOLR, I seem to manage at least one careless encounter with poison ivy every year! I’ve had my one encounter for this season already.  So, I can see where this season is heading already. 

During the summer months poison ivy produces grapelike clusters of tiny white, pumpkin-like seeds with an off-white or pale yellow rind. Eventually, the rind flakes off and exposes the seed. Well before this happens, however, the rind-bound seeds are feasted upon by a variety of birds, including flickers and woodpeckers, sapsuckers, thrushes, pheasants and quail. Songbirds also eat the fruit during their fall migrations and during the winter when other foods are scarce. The rind provides the birds with nourishment, while the seeds usually pass through the birds’ gut unharmed. In this way, birds act as agents in the spread of poison ivy.

Identifying Poison Ivy isn’t difficult. What is difficult is to REMEMBER to identify it before you sit down in its midst or weed the flower garden with abandon. If you are a “sensitive” ALWAYS LOOK FIRST! Poison Ivy resembles Virginia Creeper. They often grow in direct proximity to each other.   Here’s the motto, along with photos:

Leaves of five (Virginia Creeper) leave alive
(meaning, count the five lobes, identify as Virginia Creeper)
Leaves of three (Poison Ivy) don’t touch me!
(Count those three lobes and know it's that diabolical Poison Ivy).

There are also many myths associated with Poison Ivy concerning remedies. Most I’ve tried have turned out to be less than effective. One I’ve not tried is rubbing the affected area with the inside of a banana peel. On the other hand, I have found rubbing alcohol, if applied within 20 minutes of exposure, to be effective. Some say dishwashing detergent works, too. Again, the link I’ve provided here has lots of good information, including pictures of the rash and other remedies. The author of this website offers many tips and methods for determining whether or not exposure has occurred.

Finally, the danger is not past with the passage of summer. In the fall, Poison Ivy leaves are particularly beguiling. They invite the uninformed to gather those brilliant leaves and put them in a vase on the table. Know your plants, dear reader! Pay attention to the flora in your backyard, and be aware of the ramifications of a chance brush-up with this fiendish trickster.


  1. I always wash my hands after a jaunt outside but I still manage at least one unexpected outbreak of poison ivy rash each year. I blame it on the dogs, who likely carry it inside on their coats, but it's probably not all their fault.

  2. Carolyn,

    Thanks so much for that "heads-up" regarding pets. Sometimes we forget that their hair can carry a lot of leftover Poison Ivy! I appreciate your mention!


  3. Poison Ivy is not my friend -- but is a friend of certain wildlife -- so what do you do. Just leave it -- will it eventually reach a climax stage like trees in the forest. I could live with that -- I would know where they are. I don't use chemicals so I am in a dilemma! I do know that one should NOT burn poison ivy as it then gets in the lungs! My old timey neighbor tells me to eat of few of the leaves to become immune. Yikes that is scary. The only thing that seems to help me is zinc oxide and a soapy shower right after I know I have been exposed. Good blog -- barbara

  4. Well thank goodness we don't have poison ivy in Europe. The worst we have are stinging nettles which only cause a short term stinging which can be alleviated by the rubbing on of crushed dock leaves - as every country child knows.

  5. Great informative post, Elora. Unfortunately, I, too, am very allergic. I had a case of poison ivy two years ago that lingered for five full months, no matter what I did. My Grandma, who had a farm in North Carolina, used to have us wash with a brown soap called Octagon Soap after exposure. And I think it is very helpful if you use it right after you've been exposed. It's also great for getting out laundry stains! And my husband likes using it to wash his hair. I find it in the laundry section of my local Food Lion grocery (for those that might have a Food Lion nearby).

  6. Oh, Beth!!! I cannot imagine such agony! Five months??!! I remember Ocatagon Soap from my grandmother, too. Never knew it was good to scrub out Poison Ivy, though! Thank you for the info!


  7. Ruta,

    You're lucky not to have Poison Ivy. I believe the Stinging Nettle requires a more moist climate, like yours. When we lived on Vancouver Is. in British Columbia, we had nettles. Some suggested eating them as greens! Not me! We also had stinging nettles (is there any other kind???) near Seattle. I remember getting lost in a thicket of them and terrified of not finding my way out in an orderly manner, I plunged headlong through 8-ft. tall nettles. For DAYS thereafter, I lay without clothing, as my legs and arms swelled to twice their normal size. It took roughly four days to shed the effect and I've never gone close to a nettle again!

    Also, Barbara! I sure wouldn't trust that old prescription to EAT Poison Ivy in tiny amounts to ward off susceptibility! Think of the dreadful result if that turns out NOT to be a good remedy!!

    Thank you all for your most interesting comments!

  8. When we were young and played outdoors from daylight till dark my poor younger brother used to have at least one encounter with poison ivy every summer. The problem was he even broke out if he walked through the smoke where someone was burning it on a fire! He ended up having to get a shot to clear it up. blessings, marlene