Coexisting with Poison Ivy

by Barbara Walvoord

First published in the Lathrop Lamp Post September 2, 2016

Poison ivy loves carbon dioxide. Scientists have found that poison ivy’s growth and potency have doubled since 1960 and could
double again as carbon dioxide levels increase. Sharon and I have observed poison ivy in all our woods and fields, even along some of our paths.
The Land Conservation Committee’s work includes removing alien invasive plants, so residents sometimes ask whether the committee can help remove poison ivy. However, poison ivy is a native plant with an important role in nature’s food chains, so the committee does not remove it. Its leaves and berries feed deer, bears, and sixty species of birds. Its berries last into winter, when other berries are scarce. Insects eat the leaves. Caterpillars spin silk to roll the leaves of poison ivy around themselves as a cocoon. Urushiol, the compound poisonous to humans, is not poisonous to birds or animals, and it helps the plant retain water.

You can get poison ivy by touching any part of the plant. Contaminated hands, tools, or clothing can pass on the urushiol to other body parts.
But don’t let poison ivy keep you from walking our quiet woodland paths or our brilliant meadows with their purple asters just about to bloom. Sharon and I walk, kneel, and cut down invasive plants in our
woods and fields nearly every day.

Basic guidelines:

  • Detergent removes urushiol from shoes, clothing, tools, and pet fur.
  • Rubbing alcohol or Tecnu (available at drug stores), followed by soap and lots of rinse water, removes it from skin within the first 30 minutes after exposure, before it can bind to the skin and cause a rash.
Walking, we wear waterproof boots and calf-high socks with the pants tucked in. Afterward, if we think we may have walked
through poison ivy, we spray our boots with a bottle of all-purpose cleanser we keep by the door, and rinse them with the hose (this builds agility and balance). Here on August 30 is my “selfie” ready to spray my boots with detergent and then rinse them.poison-ivy-spray-8-30-16-img_1814
Or, using bare hands or dishwashing gloves, you can put the boots on the lawn or in a sink to wash and rinse. Then, if there’s any chance the poison ivy reached over our boots onto our socks, we peel them off into the washing machine.
We may have contaminated our hands with all of this, but we have 30 minutes, so we wash our hands with rubbing alcohol or Tecnu, then soap and rinse. As a regular routine, this takes about 5 minutes.
Now, finally, we can use the toilet without getting urushiol on body parts where we don’t want it (we learned this from experience).
Next week: How to kneel and work in poison ivy, and how to remove poison ivy from your yard or garden.
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