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January 18, 2018

'A poison ivy crisis,' and he's the crisis manager

Plants are waking up and seedlings emerging. Runners are creeping across yards and woodlands, over fences and walls. Ropelike aerial roots are shooting up the sides of trees like archers to a target.

Got itch yet?

Poison ivy got its name in the 1600s from Capt. John Smith, the explorer, who noted its resemblance to English ivy. Connecticut is the nation’s poison ivy epicenter, Mycka says, “but the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware region is not far off.”

It’s spread by birds, which eat the seeds. Development and habitat destruction, and our own gardening habits, are factors, too, Mycka says. We build homes and attract birds that like to eat from feeders, explore our gardens, and perch on our decks, buildings, and fences.

Duke University researchers have also determined that rising carbon dioxide levels are causing poison ivy to grow faster and produce more potent urushiol, the pale, resin-like substance that causes the plant’s signature rash, swelling, and blistering.

“We have a poison ivy crisis now,” Mycka says. “People can’t identify it and remove it. They’re so disconnected from nature.”

That was not the case with Gusoff, a retired public schoolteacher who loves to garden and tried for two years, unsuccessfully, to get rid of her poison ivy.

Gusoff, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and other ailments and walks with a cane, became so overwhelmed by “the monster” quietly infiltrating her yard that she avoided the family’s aboveground pool for two summers.

And got zapped anyway.

In August, she broke out in a bodysuit-like rash after snuggling with Delilah Mercedes, her senior-citizen golden retriever now nicknamed “the culprit.”

“She enjoys exploring the backyard. It’s a jungle out there,” says Gusoff, who finally called Mycka.

One day in late April, he arrives with a crew of three. They’re wearing long sleeves, long pants, double gloves, and wrist-to-elbow Tyvek protectors, knee pads, and boots.

(We resist the temptation to chant: Leaves of three, let it be! Hairy rope, don’t be a dope!)

Using Japanese gardening knives and serrated grass sickles with hardened steel blades, the men follow the vines 15 feet down the trunk to the base of a 30-year-old white spruce, and out into the yard.

“It doesn’t matter if you start above or on the ground, as long as you get it all,” says Mycka, who estimates that Gusoff’s vine is nine years old, 19 feet long, and 25 pounds.

A mere mini.

In 2013, Mycka used crowbars to pry a 50-foot poison ivy vine off a hackberry tree along Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park. Counting rings, he determined that the female vine – yes, there are male and female plants – was 38 years old. Cut into five pieces, it tipped the scales at 506 pounds.

“This is an interesting job,” says Mycka, who collects poison ivy books and art in his Overbrook home.

He grew up in the city’s Somerton section, always wanted to be a gardener, and became fascinated by toxic plants when he was a Boy Scout.

He signed on at the zoo in 1974 and, after seven years of evening classes, earned a two-year associate’s degree in horticulture from Temple University Ambler.

You’d think “the poison ivy horticulturist” would be happy that it’s such a problem. Actually, says Mycka, who hosted a poison ivy conference in Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013, “I want to educate people. There’s so much suffering. I really don’t want to have 20 crews out pulling poison ivy.”

Poisonous in every season, poison ivy doesn’t die in winter. Bird-dropped seeds can germinate and wind up climbing a tree 15 feet away. In three years, that vine can be 25 feet up the trunk. In 40 years, just imagine.

If you’re lucky, you’re among the 15 percent of the population whose immune systems don’t register poison ivy as a threat. Mycka’s crew is among them, but he is not.

Yes, the boss occasionally gets the rash. But, as you might imagine, he is very, very careful.

So careful that when a now poison-ivy-free Gusoff approaches to shake his hand, Mycka backs off. “We’ll do a virtual handshake,” he says.

“God bless you,” his grateful client responds from two feet away.

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'A poison ivy crisis,' and he's the crisis manager

Healthcheck: Dealing with poison ivy

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Umar Mycka isn’t your average gardener.

“I’m a poison ivy horticulturalist,” he says, “a gardener who specializes in poison ivy removal.”

What Mycka does makes other cringe: wading into backyards and parks filled with the poisonous plant, and digging it out.

He says that while most people can identify its “leaves of three,” they don’t understand how it grows, so they get rashes over and over again.

For one thing, it takes root fast, and spreads quickly. A 2-year-old plant can have a 20-foot vine.

In one yard, a handful of sprigs above ground were hiding a 30-foot vine just below the soil.

“It was under the shrubs,” said Mycka, “under the English ivy. It was under pachysandra. Weed killer only killed the top leaves, not the vine below.”

About 85 percent of us have a reaction to the oil that’s on poison ivy’s leaves and vines.

“It does penetrate your skin,” says Mycka. “It goes into the lower layers of the skin, and it combines with a protein in the skin. You want to get that off before it happens.”

Mycka says you’ve got about 10 minutes to wash it off with lots of soap and water, or wipe it off with rubbing alcohol.

If you do get a rash, contrary to common belief, it won’t spread if you scratch those itchy blisters.

But it will be with you for awhile. It takes 8 days to peak before it diminishes.

Experts remind us that there is normally a boom in poison ivy cases over Memorial Day weekend so beware!

RELATED LINKS:

Umar Mycka’s website: idontwantpoisonivy.com

(Copyright ©2013 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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Healthcheck: Dealing with poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy – Back in college, I developed an oozing poison ivy rash all over my neck and arms and had to go on steroids — just because I inadvertently grazed the clothes of a friend who had gone tromping through the woods earlier that day. What’s worse, it happened right before the Dalai Lama visited my school. While my classmates were leaning forward in their folding chairs to capture his every syllable, I was shifting in my seat, clutching a bottle of calamine lotion, and desperately trying to look calm while the Lama talked about peace of mind — something I only know from reading the transcript. It’s hard to listen while your skin is on fire.

poison ivy climate change

So yeah, I’m pretty allergic to poison ivy. But a lot of people are — 80 percent of the population reacts to the vine with welts and maddeningly itchy rashes. So the fact that poison ivy plants are getting bigger and more poisonous due to climate change isn’t exactly welcome news. But that’s precisely what’s happening; scientific research indicates that with higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the poison ivy plant grows larger, and its “oil” (a.k.a. the awful poisonous stuff) becomes more potent.

Fortunately, someone’s already thinking about how we could do a better job getting rid of the plant. (Rabbits and deer might miss it — they’re immune to the ivy’s poison, so it makes a nice leafy lunch for them — but consequences to the overall ecosystem would be minor, experts say.) Last week a group of horticulturists, scientists, and nurses convened in Philadelphia for the first conference devoted exclusively to the nettlesome vine. Ivy eradication specialist Umar Mycka, who also works at the Philadelphia zoo, organized the small, four-day gathering. One of his goals was to swap itching remedies and removal strategies with other poison ivy experts.

poison ivy

“If you want to deal with a problem, you have to know what size problem you’re dealing with,” Mycka says. “These plants are so powerful to start with, it doesn’t take much of a touch from carbon to make it much worse.”

That’s exactly what scientists found when they planted poison ivy in an experimental forest at Duke University, piping in carbon dioxide to artificially raise the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to the levels it’s expected to be by about 2050. The result, published in 2006: like other plants subjected to a high-CO2 environment, the poison ivy plants grew 150 percent bigger, with 153 percent higher concentrations of their oil, called urushiol.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who co-authored the study, estimates that poison ivy plants are already growing 50 to 60 percent larger than they did 100 years ago. He told me that warmer temperatures are probably also pushing poison ivy-growing zones northward (again, as with many other plants), and urbanization is creating conditions amenable to the wily plant, which thrives in semi-developed areas with more sunlight.

“Think of heat islands or cities as climate change in miniature,” Ziska says. “There are higher C02 concentrations, higher temperatures. There’s a fragmentation of ecosystems. All of those factors allow poison ivy to enter an environment that it may not have been in before.”

At the Philadelphia conference, attendees had a chance to see poison ivy’s monstrous proportions firsthand. Mycka led them to a public park near the center of the city, where a large vine had been growing up a tree. Its weight after removal: 506 pounds. And climate change is going to make it worse? I can already feel my skin burning.

poison ivy

poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

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