May 21, 2019

Garden Variety: Tougher poison ivy

Can poison ivy really get any worse?

If you have ever had a reaction to the plant, just the inscribed memory of endless itching might make you doubtful that anything could rival it. For gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts who regularly encounter poison ivy, however, the rumors that the plant is becoming more abundant are starting to look true.

The news about poison ivy (Toxicodendron taxa) is more than rumor, but if you heard it from a friend, it would be easy to put it in a box with old wives’ tales and snake oils. Research at Duke University in the early 2000s started the discussion when the results of a six-year study on the relationship between poison ivy and elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide were released.

The bottom line from the report’s abstract reads: “Our results indicate that Toxicodendron taxa will become more abundant and more ‘toxic’ in the future, potentially affecting global forest dynamics and human health.”

In the study, when atmospheric carbon dioxide increased in a forest, poison ivy was able to photosynthesize better and use water more efficiently, making it grow faster and larger than it would otherwise. In addition, the urushiol (the oil responsible for skin irritation) produced by these plants was more allergenic than in plants at normal atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide is related to growth stimulation in other species of plants also, but the rate of increase in poison ivy is higher than most and will help the plant outcompete others as carbon dioxide levels increase.

Unfortunately, little can be done to stop poison ivy besides avoidance and controlling it on your own property. Learn to recognize the plant, characterized by compound leaves with three leaflets. Poison ivy can be a vine, a shrub or something that looks like a perennial groundcover with single leaves coming out of the ground. Along the Kansas River north of Lawrence, large patches of waist-high poison ivy are easy to find. By mid-to-late summer the leaves often have reddish spots on them that make them easier to recognize.

If you encounter poison ivy, avoid touching any part of the plant or contacting it with tools or clothing. Urushiol, the oil produced by the plant, can be carried on objects and cause a reaction later through indirect contact. Urushiol can also be inhaled if poison ivy plants are burned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 to 90 percent of humans are allergic to urushiol, but allergies can develop for those who think they are immune. Urushiol reactions are characterized by itchy red bumps, patches and weeping blisters.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to Lawrence Living@ljworld.com.

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Garden Variety: Tougher poison ivy

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Avoid Poison Ivy Peril

Preventing and treating poison ivy


Poison ivy is a native plant so it can’t be eradicated, but there are ways to get it out of your way for the season. (Courtesy of the USDA)

WASHINGTON – It’s the time of year when everyone starts heading outside. And it
is also the time of year when doctors see an uptick in poison ivy cases.

The plant itself is not seasonal. It grows year-round and poses a threat even in
the dead of winter.

However, people are more likely to come into contact with poison ivy when
gardening or
engaging in more active outdoor activities, such as hiking.

Poison ivy is a native plant, which means it will never be totally eradicated.
But WTOP Garden Editor Mike
McGrath says there is a safe way to get rid of it for the season.

He says herbicides are not a good option because even after application, the plant
is still allergenic to the
touch. He also warns that garden gloves should never be worn when removing poison
ivy because the oil in
the plant that causes a rash is easily spread from one surface to another.

“It’s going to be on doorknobs, it is going to be on car handles, it is going to
be on your steering wheel,” McGrath says.

Instead, he says get a big rolling trash can, a helper with a hose and a bunch of
thick plastic shopping bags
from the mall (McGrath says plastic bags from the supermarket are too thin).

“When you see a poison ivy vine, have your helper wet the soil around the base
using the hose. Let it go for
about 3 or 4 minutes until that soil is really saturated,” he says.

Once that is done, slip a plastic bag up each arm, and gently begin to pull out
the roots. McGrath says when
the final root comes out of the ground, pull the bags down over your arms without
touching the vine and
throw the bags and the vine in the trashcan.

Under no circumstance should anyone burn the vines with yard debris because the
oil in the plant mixes
with the smoke, McGrath advises. This mixture can be very dangerous if inhaled.

McGrath says firefighters dealing with wild fires routinely use respirators to
protect their lungs, and they
wear a clay-type compound to protect their bodies from any poison ivy allergens
that might get on their

That compound — Ivy Block — is available over-the-counter and is a good source
of extra prevention for
those who are extremely sensitive to poison ivy. McGrath says for most people, the
best thing to do is just
remember to rinse any exposed areas with cool water immediately after contact with
the vine.

“The more you wash it with cool, clear water, the better the chances you have of
getting the oil off your skin
before the reaction can begin,” he says, noting it takes 10-30 minutes for the oil
to penetrate the skin.

Washing the skin with cool water is key because it dissolves the oil.

Dr. Howard Brooks, a Georgetown-based dermatologist, says he urges his garden
warrior patients to
routinely take a cool shower after working outside, even if they are not sure they
have been exposed to
poison ivy.

However, if patients are exposed, he is ready with a plan of attack. Brooks says
most garden-variety poison
ivy can be treated at home first with cold compresses to reduce inflation,
followed by aloe vera, calamine
lotion or over-the-counter hydrocortisone.

Severe cases demand medical attention, especially when on the face.

“Any infection on the face, around the mouth, nose, if you have swollen eyes,
swollen skin and blistering,
you really want to go in and see a dermatologist,” Brooks says.



poison ivy


paula wolfson






mike mcgrath


garden plot


howard brooks




Preventing and treating poison ivy

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