David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
A plant worthy of a good cussing
Poison ivy is only good for feeding the birds
There are few plants that provide some interest to me. While others ignore the sweet gum tree, I view the annoying mace-like seed pod as a nuisance, and concentrate on the fact that the tree has few pests, and few superiors when it comes to fall colors.
I don’t have a tree in my yard or anywhere nearby. It’s not something I have to walk over or around.
For those that have it, they swear at it.
Native plants usually make my heart beat faster, as these plants have adapted to all sorts of weather-related conditions and native creatures to thrive. When I come across smooth hydrangea or green dragons in the woods, I smile. When purple cone flowers are blooming in a ditch, my spirits perk up.
Poison ivy is one plant I would just as soon wipe off the face of the earth, though there are those that expound on its benefits.
Folks like it because it is one of the top 10 berries bird feast on during the winter. Doing away with it would probably do away with some of our song birds and I do like birds.
However, it’s a purely hate-hate relationship with me. Poison ivy serves no purpose in my yard or the surrounding park except to keep my doctor and the local pharmacy in business.
When my skin comes in contact with the plant for a nano-second, the poison ivy’s oils do their wicked job. Within 24 hours, it’s off to the doctor for a prescription, and a chastising talk that usually centers around, “If anyone should be able to identify and keep away from the plant …” The response is usually a “yeah, yeah, yeah. Can I have my medicine prescription?”
Over the years, I’ve discovered the little seedlings that look somewhat like miniature maples, but more deadly even at that stage. When you’re doing weeding and planting, sometimes you don’t discover what you’ve encountered until later.
Then there are times you protect your hands with garden gloves only to wipe the sweat off your brow and out of your eye.
Pets are another possible carrier of poison ivy. If pets are allowed to wander in wooded areas, their fur may carry the plant’s sap for a long time. A soap-and-water bath is just about the only way to get the contaminants out of the pet’s coat, but make sure you are clothed top to bottom. For cats, it’s almost easier to not bathe them and resign yourself to the poison ivy.
Garden tools may spread poison ivy. A thorough scrub with soap and water is the only practical way to prevent recontamination. You may have to dip them in a bleach solution to remove all the plant’s oil.
The most annoying aspect about poison ivy is that not everyone is allergic to it. However, resistance can slowly ebb away, until that day when a person develops a full-blown case. Usually, susceptibility increases with age. Just another thing to look forward to.
Eating the leaves in the spring will not make you less susceptible later on as some people claim. It’s not a wise practice as you can develop rashes inside your mouth and throat, which are difficult to scratch.
Most experts give you a five-minute window for reducing the injury potential. There are some products on the market that can be applied to the skin before coming in contact with poison ivy. They work, but time and sweat can diminish the effectiveness of the products, reapply regularly.
There are towelettes available that can be used soon after touching the plant to break down the oils. Just remember to throw the towelettes away in a plastic bag
Contrary to popular opinion, poison oak and poison sumac are seldom found in Illinois. They are traditionally found in other parts of the United States. Poison ivy can take on several forms, all of which have the tradition three-leaflet leaf.
Soap and water is still the best control if you catch it in time. After five minutes, the value of washing, goes down fast for controlling poison ivy.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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