Poison Ivy: Itching To Have A Bad Time


As a child I was perpetually covered with calamine lotion.
Our house was surrounded by woods that were home to the shiny, three-leaved demon and the woods were my playground. Later on, when I worked as a naturalist for a large park district I was more able to spot the plant and avoid it, but inevitably I would step on a plant or brush against it and the spots and itch were only days away.

The worst insult of all though was when one of my dogs would roll in the stuff and then neglect to tell me of the misdeed. While dogs and cats can spread the oils from their bodies to us, they don’t get the itch.

It was something of a relief moving out here to the East End in the early 1970s, as poison ivy was not as widespread as in the woods of Nassau County and the forests of the Berkshires. And after all, you can’t catch PI at the beach right?


In fact, poison ivy is now quite common out here, especially along our sandy dunes as the migrating and feeding habits of some birds that eat the plants’ berries have resulted in the establishment of toxicodendron radicans throughout the Hamptons. It now grows only feet from our front doors, when 30 years ago there was none within a thousand feet of the house. I’m sorry to report that the plant is also well established on the sand dunes of both the ocean and bays. Yes, it’s even at most of the public beaches.

Those of you who insist on walking through the dunes, which is an ecological no-no, will pay the price. If you are unsure what poison ivy looks like or if you want to show it to your children, take a ride to the Coopers Beach parking lot in Southampton and park right below the dunes. Directly in front on the north and west sides of the dune to the right of the beach overlook you can see patches of PI that solidly cover more than 1,000 square feet and then spread less uniformly throughout the dunes to the west.

On residential properties poison ivy can be eliminated but it is a project that demands several years of perseverance and caution. For those of you with children, the best prevention is education—as in show and tell—but many adults need to learn how to identify the plant as well.

When my son was just 4 years old, he was a great spotter and a lover of nature walks. He knows where not to tread.

I’ll briefly digress to tell you of the jogger friend who ran the same route in the Shinnecock Hills every day. He knew his plants and was a supposed outdoorsman, but on one of his early morning jogs he had the need to relieve himself. He found a secluded spot off the road, did his thing, and for lack of toilet paper used leaf litter. I will save the balance of the details, save to say that the old boy was in a most uncomfortable situation for many days to follow.

Strictly speaking, sensitivity to PI, and its relatives poison oak and poison sumac, is an allergic reaction. Approximately 70 percent of the American population is sensitive to PI and the lacquer-like chemical, urushiol, that is present in the leaves, stems, roots and berries of the plant.

Even people who claim to be resistant to the effects of PI can indeed get the itch, as resistance to the oil is rarely permanent. It’s even possible to be afflicted without going near the plant. The active oils can stick to a shoe and be contacted days later. Or your pet, which is immune to the effects, may brush or roll against the plant and then rub against you, presenting you with an invisible present and thus the common refrain, “But I wasn’t anywhere near a woods.”

The familiar warning says it all, “Leaves of three, let it be,” as the most notable characteristic of PI is that the foliage always occurs as three leaflets. While they can be become reddish at some growth stages, they are a glossy green for most of the growing season. The plants bear white berries in August and it is a favorite food of many birds who then distribute the seed (which is not digested) to inadvertently redistribute the species.

The plant may grow as a short ground cover, bushy shrub, sturdy vine up to 6 inches in diameter or even as a tree in some spots. More than once I’ve seen it twine up a tall tree with its stems as much as 4 inches thick.

If you come into contact with the plant, plant parts, or even smoke from the plant if someone is burning it, you are exposed to the oily allergen that is so potent that as little as one-thousandth of a milligram can produce the typical rash. It is also highly resistant to destruction. Contact with a tool or article of clothing that was contaminated by urushiol years ago can cause an allergic reaction unless the object is thoroughly cleansed with strong detergent and water. Soaps containing oils should be avoided as they may act to spread the oil instead of dissipate or eliminate it.

Sorry, there is no proven way to desensitize yourself against the active oils, though there are a number of products on the market that claim to protect you when used prior to exposure. Some even claim to protect you after exposure. One that I can vouch for is called Tecnu and it’s available at most garden centers, or online at teclabsinc.com. You use it like a soap if you suspect that you have come into contact with PI. While it claims to work for up to eight hours after exposure, I try to use it immediately. And it works on shoes and tools as well.

On your property, poison ivy can be eliminated in only two ways.

First, you can pull it out and every time it resurfaces, pull it out again. This is a risky approach and just the thought of going at it in this manner makes me itch.

Safer is the use of an herbicide. In my opinion the safest product to use is Roundup. This product is not without its detractors but I think that poison ivy is one instance where its use is warranted.

Roundup can be sprayed on the foliage so long as the chemical does not come into contact with any other desired plant material, as it is non-selective. In other situations Roundup can be painted on the foliage with a paintbrush or foam-type of applicator.

Don’t expect instant results as the herbicide can take weeks to show results and several applications may be necessary. It is also more effective if the plant can be cut back (a risky procedure), then the newly emerged foliage treated. In following years, some spot treatment may be necessary but good control or even local eradication can be accomplished with simple perseverance.

If you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy and want to check out additional symptoms or alternative health remedies, visit healthy.net. And remember, PI can show up in your pachysandra, ivy, flower garden and vegetable garden—not just in the woods.

Be aware. And keep growing.

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