Avoiding summer poison ivy discomfort
By University of Illinois Extension
URBANA, Ill. — Summer outings followed by days of itching discomfort can be avoided, said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Rhonda Ferree.
“Knowing more about poison ivy and how it grows might help you avoid rash problems later,” she said. “Remember the old adage, leaves of three, let it be!”
Poison ivy grows in various locations and many different environmental conditions. “It is in fencerows, under trees, and in ornamental shrub and perennial plantings, probably seeded through bird droppings,” Ferree explained. “When it grows among desirable plants, poison ivy is a challenge to control.”
A member of the sumac family, poison ivy (Rhus radicans) has leaflets in threes. This means that one leaf is made up of three smaller leaflets. Leaflets usually have smooth edges with a few indentations.
“Although sometimes bushy and erect, poison ivy typically creeps in and around plants and up trees or structures,” she said. “It has very small green flowers in the late spring and early summer, which develop into gray or whitish berry-like fruit. The fruit is an important food source for much wildlife.
“I have done numerous poisonous plant programs and am surprised how few people can recognize poison ivy,” Ferree added. “Even more surprising is how many people think that Virginia creeper is a poisonous vine. In fact, many people think Virginia creeper is poison oak. This is just not true.”
Poison oak has much smaller leaflets with rounded edges and only grows in the Western states. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is often confused with poison ivy; however, Virginia creeper has five leaflets, not three, and is not considered poisonous, Ferree explained.
While several herbicides are available to control poison ivy, Ferree cautioned they all will harm other plant vegetation, so care is needed.
“To control poison ivy in a landscape setting, three methods may prove successful: (1) grubbing or hand-pulling the vine when the soil is wet; (2) severing the main vine and pulling it out of the existing vegetation, then treating new shoots that emerge with a herbicide to kill the roots; and (3) treating the foliage with a herbicide, which may mean painting individual leaflets to avoid contacting landscape plant foliage,” she said.
When choosing a herbicide, which ones work? Glyphosate (e.g. Roundup) is most effective when applied two weeks on either side of full bloom, in early summer, Ferree said. “Repeat applications of Roundup may be required to maintain control, and fall treatments must be applied before leaves lose green color,” Ferree said. “Other homeowner formulations are available and usually say ‘poison ivy/oak’ in the name somewhere. These formulations typically contain the active ingredient triclopyr.”
Ferree added that if you think you have been in contact with poison ivy, it is important to wash yourself and your clothing right away.
“Plenty of plain old soap and water helps remove the sap from both skin and clothing,” she said. “If a rash does develop, follow doctor recommendations to relieve the itching. And if the rash is severe, or it affects the mouth or other sensitive areas of the body, seek medical attention immediately.”
Poison ivy rashes certainly are not fun to endure. Yet, Ferree said that enjoying the great outdoors is so wonderful that it is worth the risk. “Go out and enjoy nature this summer, but stay away from the leaves of three,” she said.
From the July 17-23, 2013, issue