June 5, 2014
4 Things You Didn’t Know About Poison Ivy - Photo courtesy Chris Evans/Illinois Wildlife Action Plan (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Chris Evans/Illinois Wildlife Action Plan

My husband and I took a hike in the woods last weekend, and we noticed lots of poison ivy leafing out. If your farm hosts poison ivy of its own, and you’re wondering how best to get rid of the plants without resorting to nasty chemicals, here’s some info you might find useful.

1. The Rash Cause: Urushiol Oil
About 80 percent of the population is susceptible to the urushiol oil contained in poison ivy plants. Contact with this oil causes skin to break out in a red, bumpy, itchy rash. Even if you haven’t developed a rash in the past, new exposures can always bring about an allergic reaction. In fact, repeated exposures increase the odds of susceptibility.

That’s why it’s so important to wash up with a poison-ivy soap (like Tecnu or Ivy Off) immediately after possible exposure to the plant, including in the winter. These products break up the urushiol and allow it to be washed off the skin readily. Urushiol residue remains potent on exposed clothing, tools, shoes and pets for several years, so carefully washing all these items is a must, as well.  

2. Your Rash Can Spread—But It’s Not Contagious
A rash from poison-ivy exposure initially develops right where the urushiol directly contacted the skin anywhere from a few hours to a few days after contact. The really bad news is that the poison ivy allergen can then be carried systemically within your body, causing rashes “pop up” on other parts of your body. It’s not, however, contagious to other people who come in contact with the rash on your skin, even if it’s oozing. The initial exposure must come from direct contact with the urushiol itself.  

3. Poison Ivy Is a Year-Round Problem
Unfortunately, it’s possible to contract poison ivy year-round. You can contract it from exposure to the leaves for sure, but you can also get it from touching the dormant stems and even the root system. Because of this, be careful when handling firewood from trees that may have had poison ivy vines growing up them. The vines and exposed wood remain poisonous for up five years after being cut down. Plus, the smoke produced from burning poison ivy is also dangerous; you can end up developing the rash all over your body and even in your lungs.  

4. To Protect Yourself, Get to the “Root” of the Problem
To successfully get rid of small- to medium-sized poison ivy plants, dig them out. As I am highly allergic myself, I have a dedicated “poison ivy shovel” in my shed that I only use to dig out poison ivy plants. I wear an old raincoat and chemical resistant gloves for the task (these too are dedicated as “poison ivy gear”). Once the plant is dug out, I put a large plastic trash bag up over my arm and then pick up the plant and flip the bag down over it so it’s completely encased in the bag (kind of like picking up after Fido). I then tie the bag closed and throw it in the garbage.

Larger vines are a tougher issue. I’ve hired a landscaper to remove them for us in the past and would probably do the same again if the need arose. You can also saw off the “trunk” of the ivy and allow the top portion to die off on its own (but remember, the urushiol can remain potent for up to 5 years). You can dig out the root or continue to regularly remove any new growth as soon as it sprouts. This will eventually serve to starve the roots of carbohydrates and kill the plant.

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