by Charlotte Kidd, M. Ed.
Umar Mycka Talks to Gardeners
Most of us gardeners have gotten up close and personal with the poison tree – Eastern Climbing Poison Ivy. Too close! Toxicodendron radicans (literally poison tree) is familiar to us as stealthy, opportunistic poison ivy. Much of what we hear and know, though, isn’t accurate. Myths and wives’ tales persist.
Knowing the facts about poison ivy is simply smart for everyone – gardener, parent, child, property owner, outdoors lover. Umar Mycka, Philadelphia, PA-based horticulturist and veteran poison ivy removal specialist, wants to set the record straight.
“We’re sharing our experience on ways to better identify the plant and avoid getting the itchy rash.” explains Mycka, also owner of IdontWantPoisonIvy.com, and president of Poison Ivy Horticulturist, Inc. He’s drawing from his 25+ years of expertise, study, and hands-on experience.
Nine of ten of us have gotten the poison ivy rash – itchy, red blisters and bumps- from accidentally touching the plant. Rather, our skin touching resin (urushiol) in the plant cells.
For gardeners, poison ivy seems to sneak up out of nowhere when we’re weeding, deadheading, pruning, picking melons, cutting flowers. The vine with its irritating resin can grow low along the ground and a wall AND climb upwards around a tree or a wall. Or all three.
Whoops! Oh s##t! We spot a green, three-leaflet poison ivy or a look-alike in our handful of pilewort and pigweed.
“Poison ivy tricks gardeners,” Mycka adds. The plant’s leaves and form can differ so much, it can be difficult to identify. Young and old vines produce different kinds of foliage – jagged, lobed, or smooth-edged leaflets. Individual plants sprout here and there. They can also connect to a thick, mature vine running just on the soil surface or along the wall.
Do we busy gardeners snap to when accidentally touching poison ivy? Immediately stop weeding. Change our gloves. Wash bare skin with soap and water within 10, 20 minutes of contact to remove resin before it attaches like glue to our skin.
“The constant is three leaflets, two petioles,” explains Mycka. He likens the poison ivy leaf to the shape of our upper body – head, neck, torso, and arms. “Leaves of three resemble me.” (More about that in Know Thy Enemy.)
Prepare for a Surprise Attack.
Poison ivy oil seeps from a bruised or broken leaf, stem, vine, root. The oil quickly attaches to our skin like superglue. We can avoid getting the rash by acting fast after we touch the plant. Immediately stop weeding, pruning, gardening. Wash bare skin with oil-dissolving soap and water or wipe with 70% isopropyl alcohol within 10, 20 minutes of contact. That dissolves and removes the resin before it binds to skin.
Remember to change gloves. Remove (and wash) clothing that might carry the resin.
Scout for the Enemy!
We gardeners have an advantage. We know plants. We instinctively look closely at leaves, flowers, stems – for differences, for insects, for an unusually beautiful pattern or color.
Before getting in the gardening groove, look around for poison ivy in all its forms – especially under trees, in disturbed soil, on garden borders, in groundcover, and along the woodland’s edge.
In Mycka’s experience “Where you see one plant, there are likely to be more – five, eight, ten plants nearby.” It’s common to find poison ivy vines weaving through privets and other thick hedges. Poison ivy grows from seeds birds drop while perched in the shrub for protection.
Identify the plants. Mark their locations with colorful flags or ties on stakes or sticks. If only a handful of invaders, decide whether to remove them now or wait till you’ve finished other planned gardening chores.
Is there too much poison ivy to deal with today? “Reboot. Move to another part of the garden,” Mycka advises. Go ahead with your plans – in a safer spot.
No, you won’t get poison ivy by gardening nearby. “You have to touch the poison ivy plant to get the rash,” notes Mycka. “The leaf, the resin can’t jump off and attack you!”
Know Thy Enemy!
The Eastern Climbing Poison Ivy vine grows in our yards and gardens as a prostrate vine running along the ground. Or as a vertical climber pushing out gripping roots as the vine reaches up into trees and on walls toward the sun.
Learn to identify poison ivy in all growth stages – from small, shiny-leafed seedling to large, green-leafed mature vine. This isn’t easy. Mycka’s found that “The old ideas don’t apply. We can’t look for red, shiny or dull, small or large leaves. Edges, leaflet shape and size vary a lot.”
The constant is three leaflets, two petioles,” explains Mycka. He likens the poison ivy leaf to our head, neck, torso, and arms. “Leaves of three resemble me.” One single, center, terminal leaflet (head) connects to a petiole that’s like our neck. That neck petiole connects to a second petiole (torso) the way our neck connects to our torso. The two remaining opposite leaflets connect to the torso petiole like our arms connect to our torso.
“That’s how leaves of three present themselves. That’s why “Poison Ivy’s Leaves of Three Resemble Me.” Whatever color, whatever shine, whatever texture, whatever size, shape and leaf edge, Leaves of Three Resemble Me, observes Mycka.
What’s a leaflet? A leaflet is one leafy part of an entire, compound leaf. Most poison ivy plants have three leaflets that connect on a stem to form one compound leaf. (There are rare exceptions: five and seven-leaflet poison ivy leaves.)
What’s a petiole? Look for the very thin stems (neck and torso) connecting the leaflets together and to the plant stem.
Clothing is a first-line barrier to poison ivy resin. “When gardening, wear gloves. And long sleeves to protect the forearm, a very delicate part of the skin.” Mycka advises “a long-sleeved shirt plus a sleeve that goes over the thumb so the wrist isn’t exposed.”
Clothing also can protect our skin from scratches and skin cuts. Mycka warns that damaged skin rubbing against poison ivy resin can lead to a more complicated poison ivy rash. Hedge clipping is an example of Double Trouble. Pruning a hedge can make small cuts on the arm. How? Broken branch tips can break the skin’s surface. “Poison ivy resin getting into those miniscule cuts can lead to a serious case of poison ivy dermatitis,” Mycka explains.
After gardening, clean off bare skin with grease-cutting dishwashing soap or 70% rubbing alcohol or shampoo to remove resin. Tools, clothing, gloves, shoes too! They can carry poison ivy resin from day to day, season to season, year to year ’til the resin washes away.
Umar Mycka’s Quick Tips for Gardeners
Wear long sleeves.
Clean up with a solvent or an oil-dissolving soap.
Have a tube of Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash ready to treat the rash.