Monday, May 6, 2013

Around the Garden

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. 


John Hall said...

I have a successful method of poison ivy eradication. Wear heavy rubber gloves that come up above your wrists. Use a set of hand clippers that you employ only for poison ivy removal. With one hand, snip emerging stem of poison ivy, then with other hand, spray a very small and carefully directed amount of Brush-G-Gone on the fresh stem. This toxin will go back through the stem and kill the vine. The chemical is bad stuff, but if you use only a tiny amount on each poison ivy stem, you won't harm other plants. Wash the gloves and clippers with dish detergent or Tecnu afterwards. This method can be a fair-sized job the first year or 2, but after that, only a few short scouting trips for new shoots of poison ivy are required each season to keep it at bay. Get at it early, as Treefanatic says. Parts of our yard were infested 4 years ago, but now these areas are virtually poison ivy free.
One other point: Some people are highly sensitive to Virginia creeper.

Random Esker said...

Another successful method that my wife sometimes employs is to have someone like myself just go out and pull it out of the ground. I had a bad case of poison ivy when I was about 13 and, since then, it and I have become friends. This is not to say that we will stay friends forever so I'm not for hire.

Anonymous said...

Ivarest is the name of the best stuff I have found to take the itch out if you do get exposed and have a skin outbreak

Catherine said...

Leave the leaves on and spray. This increases the surface area for an interaction.

Tree Fanatic said...

I purposely didn't discuss using herbicides, but agree that large infestations sometimes call for them. The reason for cutting, then painting the cut stem, is to concentrate the herbicide on the vascular tissues of the plant. (Painting the product on the stem rather than spraying reduces the potential for spray drift.)

This is what DEEP recommends for many woody plants, including bittersweet, barberry and Japanese knotweed. Please be aware that even these "safe:" products, such as glyphosate, carry risks. Parkinson's disease has been associated in some studies with glyphosate.

Jon said...

Without herbicides, I simply put on gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and go at it pulling up the roots.

Immediately afterward I put the gloves & clothes in the wash, and take a shower with plenty of soap.

Anonymous said...

Would salt water work, sprayed or injected into the stem?

Tree Fanatic said...

Salt will contaminate the soil if sprayed. Not sure about the injecting -- most vigorous plants have considerable cell turgor, (I would avoid anything that might cause the plant to squirt fluids back) and hitting the vascular tissues with a needle sounds pretty tricky.For that amount of effort, I would rather pull the stuff.

Anonymous said...

I put straight bleach in a spray bottle and spray the small patches that I find around the yard. It dies off after a couple of days.