Leaves of Three…Let Them Be!
Most people notice that trees go through a kind of metamorphosis over the course of the spring-to-summer-to-fall cycle. First the buds swell, then either flowers or tiny leaves appear, the leaves expand, fruits dangle; eventually, leaves wither and fall. We expect this because trees are such a pervasive part of our landscape.
But poison ivy is insidious, and many people don’t know it when they see it. Part of the confusion comes from its changes of color, size and even shape. On top of that, it’s easily confused with the relatively harmless Virginia creeper.
This week in my garden, much of the newly-leafed out poison ivy looks gorgeous – the photo at right shows how glossy and coppery the new leaves are. Perversely (of course) poison ivy pops up almost anywhere. Its survival mechanisms are manifold: many shoots show up as vines, but some look just like tiny trees. Later in the season, poison ivy offers tasty berries amidst its by then bright red foliage -- and hungry birds will eat those berries. Perching on a tree branch to eliminate the roughage, also known as seeds, the birds send down a nice little dab of liquid fertilizer too.
Now is a good time to tackle poison ivy – before it spreads all over the place. To see what poison ivy can become if neglected, just take a walk in the woods. Usually at the edge of any untamed woods in this area, you will see trees wrapped in ugly, hairy vines. Those hairs are the aerial roots of poison ivy, which help the vines cling tightly to a tree’s bark.
So tightly do they cling that it is futile – often disastrous – to try to remove the vines at that point. The only cure once a vine is ascending a tree’s trunk is to cut through the vine at intervals and remove small chunks, leaving the tree bark intact.
Hand-pulling is another option, but great care must be taken not to expose your skin to the leaves, stems or roots. The best method is to wear long sleeves and long pants (socks and shoes, too!), cover your hands and arms with gauntlet-style gloves, and carry a supply of plastic bags. The kind newspapers are delivered in works well.
When you find a shoot of poison ivy, insert your dominant hand and arm in the bag, and grab hold of the vine firmly. Pull slowly and steadily till the entire vine comes out of the ground. With your free hand, pull the bag down over your plant specimen, roots and all, and knot the bag’s neck so no portion of the poison ivy is dangling. Put the bag and its contents in the trash.
Do not try to be environmentally-sensitive with this plant – tossing it on your compost heap will just create a new home for the poison ivy. Burning the stuff is out of the question, since both your lungs and those of everyone downwind of you will be seared. Remember, the active ingredient in poison ivy is an oily substance called urushiol, and it doesn't wash off with soap and water, nor does desiccation help.
Like most allergens, poison ivy produces a worse reaction with each exposure. People who think they are immune to poison ivy may just be at the low end of the reaction scale, and will have a very painful surprise their third or fourth time out with this garden invader. I've never found anything that takes the itch out, but I have had good luck with a product called Tecnu that can be applied either preventatively or used as a cleanser to wash off the oils once encountered.
People claim that goats work well as poison-ivy eradicators, but I haven’t tried it. First, you have to borrow a goat – and then you have to convince it to eat only the poison ivy, not your grandmother’s heirloom peonies. And if you have a vivid imagination, just the possibility that the goat isn't actually immune could keep you up nights.