Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a common invasive plant across the Midwest, found in damp riverbeds, woodlands, trailsides, sand dunes, and open fields. The poison ivy is abundant this year – finally leafing out and growing in large stands in backyards, along trails and carpeting the woods, keeping the morel mushroom hunters at bay and irritating gardeners who want it eliminated from their cultivated garden beds.
“Leaves of three, let them be” may be a good start to identifying poison ivy, but the plant takes many shapes and if you only look for leaves of three, then you will also be avoiding plants like the raspberries and the roses. Poison ivy has compound leaves in sets of 3-5, with outside asymmetrical leaves and a middle leaf that is symmetrical that alternate along a woody stalk.
When the leaves first appear in the spring, they can be a soft or shiny purple leaf than changes to green over the season. It can be a small creeping plant, or the stalk can also be a thick, hairy vine that winds up and along tree trunks and buildings. Poison ivy produces inedible berries in the fall, and its hairy vine can be identifiable in winter. It can be easily confused with box elder, whose leaves are also compound but are opposite along the stem.
Poison Ivy & The Gardener
To the surprise of many, I actually admire poison ivy for it’s ability to mark territory and protect lands from trespassing or overuse. It was once told to me that poison ivy was given to us humans when we started to forget to say “Thank You” for the abundance of the earth’s blessings. This makes sense – poison ivy doesn’t pull down vegetation like the bittersweet vine, rather it creates a blockade causing humans to step back. Poison ivy protects the land while allowing it to regenerate.
Next time you see a large plant of poison ivy with runners all along a piece of land, take a step back and consider what is going on with the area’s ecology. Is it trying to heal itself from overuse? Is it an area that gets a lot of human traffic that needs to be limited? Something to consider, and perhaps help shift your perspective on the role of poison ivy in our environments.
Frequently I am asked how to manage the plant in gardens and in landscaping. And my answer is that I usually don’t feel a need to remove poison ivy, rather learn to identify and avoid it (those that are highly allergic never like this response, but nonetheless, I feel it’s a more realistic strategy than trying to aggressively remove the plant from the yard).
A Few Favorite Remedies for Poison Ivy
Invariably, folks that enjoy the outdoors – especially in springtime before the plant fully leafs out – will come into contact with poison ivy. There are a lot of homemade remedies to help care for the aggravating wet, weepy rash, and I list a few of mine below. Take note, that oil-based preparations should be avoided with poison ivy as it can worsen the rash. For those with serious allergies, a visit to your MD sometimes is the most prudent course of action.
Rose Vinegar One of my first aid kit must-haves is a rose-infused vinegar in a spray bottle – which is great for poison ivy rashes. A rose-infused vinegar is useful in the herbal apothecary for topical skin infections, abrasions, burns and rashes.
Preparations of rose – teas, liniments or soaks – are naturally astringent and antimicrobial can be used topically as a skin wash to cool and soothe inflammation. Vinegar – especially the naturally fermented apple cider vinegar – can also be used to wash and astringe the skin, especially conditions that are wet and weepy caused by rashes like poison ivy (it can also be used directly on the leaves and vines to help force it back from an area you are trying to clear).
Together – the rose petals extracted in vinegar -makes an awesome vinegar-based wash that is so very soothing on poison ivy inflicted skin. Simply infuse the vinegar with the rose petals and leaves (fresh or dry works), let steep for a week, strain and add to a spray bottle. Keep refrigerated, and mist skin as needed. Also perfect to soothe a summer sunburn.
Echiancea Echinacea is an excellent herb to help support the immune system’s response to septic infections. It can be used topically as a preparation of tea (strained, cooled to room temperature) to wash the wet and weepy skin infection of poison ivy. It should also be taken internally as a tea or tincture to support the immune system’s response to the plant.
Jewelweed Jewelweed is a tall succulent annual plant that sometimes grows densely like ground cover. Its root system is shallow and its hollow stalk a neon translucent green, growing about 3 to 5 feet tall. The plant is very juicy when crushed, and makes a wonderful topical poultice to apply to areas that have had contact with poison ivy, but the skin hasn’t had any eruptions. Jewelweed can also be made as a tea for a skin wash. For use throughout the season the plant can be frozen into ice cube trays for later use, or even incorporated into handmade oatmeal soap recipes for a poison ivy wash.
Of course, soaking in a tub of oatmeal water still works to soothe the itch, as does Mom’s calamine lotion. It also helps to reduce the metabolic load on the system while the body fights off the reaction – this means eliminating alcohol, sugar, refined carbs and coffee. This just opens up more bandwidth to help the body clear up on its own. Lymphatics like red root or cleavers can really help with this process.
Jim McDonald’s treatise on poison ivy can watched here.