Polk County Conservation

Poison Ivy: Scourge for All Seasons

By GEORGE BRIA, POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) - Deep into fall, the trees bare and frost on windshields, a friend burst out with a horrible case of poison ivy.

As we gathered around him pitying his blisters, some of us wondered how it could have happened. Isn't ivy a summer affliction? The answer, alas, is no. It's a scourge for all seasons.

That log you're splitting for firewood may have bark on which poison ivy grew. The poison is still there and it may get you if you touch it. In fact, handling firewood is a common source of poison ivy cases.

Smoke from burning ivy vines can get you, too.

Anything that comes in contact with the ivy passes it on - your clothing, shoes, tools and even the fur on your cats and dogs. It has ironies. Touch some ivy unwittingly and then hold your sweetheart's hand and she or he might get it because they're highly allergic while you don't because you're low risk.

My friend said he got his when he was clearing out a pile of dead-looking vines and garden debris. It infected many parts of his body, including his face. It was so bad he went to a doctor, who put him on prescription cortisone.

I usually get a touch every year. Isolated blisters show up on my legs or arms. The worst case I had was on my hands, acquired while I was digging holes to plant daffodil bulbs in the fall. I did the job bare-handed and came in contact with poison ivy roots underground.

Incidentally, you don't get it from someone else's blisters.

The damage is caused by an oil called urushiol that pervades the plant, roots and all, and is released by just touching it. Normally it stays toxic up to five years. The name comes from “urushi,” Japanese for lacquer made from a tree containing that substance.

It's so potent that scientists say only one-billionth of a gram is enough to cause a rash and a pinhead's worth would be enough to infect 500 people.

Botanically, poison ivy has names of "Rhus radicans,'' "Rhus toxicodendron'' and "Toxicodendron radicans.'' It's closely related to poison oak and poison sumac. A native of eastern North America, it is said to have been first called "poison ivy'' by Captain John Smith, the famed Virginia colonist.

If you live or spend time in the country, you soon learn to recognize poison ivy in spring and summer by its three shiny, deep-green leaves. You mark them well in your consciousness particularly if they've gotten you.

The plant appears as a climbing vine, a ground cover or even a shrub. In the fall, the leaves turn showy red, orange and yellow, but you must remember that they're still toxic and so is the vine when completely bare. The roots, which also carry the poison, can become as thick as ropes and they spread out for yards in every direction.

Poison ivy vines in the spring blossom with greenish little flowers followed by whitish berries that look like tiny grapes. One good thing that may be said about ivy is that many varieties of birds feed on the berries. But the seeds that pass through the birds are spread far and wide and that means the birth of many more plants.

Getting rid of ivy plants manually is achievable, but dangerous. You can cut vines down from trees or uproot them from the ground, but you're always running the risk of contact with the toxic oil. Also, the vines you cut down or uproot are still poisonous.

You should wear gloves and dress carefully with socks, trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Afterwards make sure you clean the clothing and tools because the poison stays on them. Don't handle the clothes barehanded; drop them in the washer and let it remove any poison.

In attacking the plants, you're safer using an herbicide like Roundup. You apply it to the leaves and it kills the root. But being nonselective, it will kill most plants it hits, so you must carefully direct the jet at your target.

There are also specific herbicides for poison ivy. But whatever herbicide you use, don't count on permanent removal. Keep looking for rebirth and spray again.

If you think you've touched ivy, wash the contact area of your body within a half hour with lukewarm water and mild soap. If you get infected anyway, old-fashioned calamine lotion helps alleviate the itching. If your blisters swell and get worse, see a doctor.

There is NO poison Oak in Iowa! People often say that they were diagnosed with Poison Oak, but this is not possible unless they were out-of-state when they contracted it.

- George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy. Reprinted from yahoo.com

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