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December 13, 2017

Gloucester County Nature: 'You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion – poison ivy'


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By Karl Anderson

for the Gloucester County Nature Club

Have you just finished spring cleaning your garden? Forgot to wear gloves? And now you have patches of an itchy rash and tiny blisters on your hands and arms?

Hmmm. Maybe you also forgot to notice the smooth stems and tiny, shiny newly-unfolding three-parted leaves of poison ivy.

Too bad; not much you can do about it. There are over-the counter remedies that will dry up the blisters and tone down the itch. Really serious cases can be treated with steroids. Cool compresses can help.

But in any case, the rash will clear up in a week or two, it’s not contagious, and it won’t spread from the area of origin.

Poison ivy grows from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic Coast to Texas. It is common everywhere in New Jersey, except in the Pine Barrens, where it generally grows only on the disturbed soils around home and industrial sites.

It can grow as a ground cover about a foot high, a vine, and even as a shrub. As a vine, it gets quite large, with stems several inches in diameter that cling to the bark of a tree with hundreds of short rootlets. So if you see a big hairy-looking vine climbing a tree, that’s poison ivy.

“Leaves of three, let it be” is a wise maxim for those who want to identify the plant. The individual leaves are two to four inches long, and they grow in groups of three.

The central leaflet is usually quite symmetrical; that is, the halves of the leaf on either side of the midrib are identical. The lateral two leaflets are most often asymmetrical, wider on one side of the midrib than the other.

All of the leaves may have a few shallow blunt lobes. The species most commonly confused with poison ivy are Virginia creeper (which has leaflets in groups of five) and some of the low-growing blackberries (leaves have lots of small sharp teeth, and the stems are thorny or bristly.)

The flowers of poison ivy are small, green, and grow in small clusters beneath the leaves. The fruits are small white berries.

The chemical that causes the allergic reaction to poison ivy is called uroshiol, and it does not affect everybody. This substance is also present in poison oak and poison sumac, two much less common local plants.

Poison oak looks much like poison ivy, but its leaves are more deeply lobed and it grows only as a ground cover, not a vine.

Poison sumac is a small wetland tree with compound leaves, which gives it a slight resemblance to the harmless staghorn, smooth, and shining sumacs.

Those three species have flowers and fruits that form large clusters at the ends of branches but poison sumac flowers and fruit are similar to those of poison ivy.

For information about the Gloucester County Nature Club, see gcnatureclub.org/.

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Gloucester County Nature: 'You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion – poison ivy'

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