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June 02. 2013 10:00PM

Poison Ivy: An old enemy lies in wait for the unsuspecting


Poison ivy has a new wardrobe for each season: red and green in spring, matte green in summer and brilliant gold, orange and red in fall. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)

Poison ivy relief

Mild cases: Benadryl and Calamine lotion can ease the itch. Dr. Christine Doherty of Milford also said that oatmeal baths and naturopathic remedies like calendula gel can help.


More serious: Rashes that cover more than 10 percent of the skin or affect the mouth, eyes, hands, neck or genitals may require corticosteroids.

Poison ivy is out in full force, and will be hanging around until a hard frost sends it away.

"Every five years or so, I get poison ivy," said gardening expert Margaret Hagen of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. "It usually takes me four to six weeks to get rid of it. It's awful, so I try hard not to get it."

Exposure to urushiol, an oil produced by the plant and found in its leaves and stems, causes an allergic reaction — the itchy rash. Some people have reactions so severe they need medical attention or even hospitalization.

There are three types of poison ivy common to the Granite State, according to Helaine Hughes, owner of The Poison Ivy Removal Company in Greenfield. There's the Eastern climbing variety that can take over trees and power lines, Western ivy that grows like a shrub, and Rydberg's, a creeping variety of poison ivy.

"The biggest problem that people have is they don't know how to identify poison ivy," Hughes said.

In the spring, the three-leaved plant is reddish-green and shiny. In the summer, it becomes a dull, matte green almost like poinsettia leaves, Hughes said. And in the fall, poison ivy takes on the quintessential fall colors, turning brilliant red, orange and gold.

Poison ivy thrives in the edges between two landscapes, according to Hagen. The space between a forest and a field, the border between a garden and a lawn, or banks of a riverbed on the side of the road are all prime locations.

"For some reason, poison ivy likes edges," Hagen said.

The plant spreads through underground runners, said Hughes, but also with the help of birds who eat the seeds from poison ivy berries in the fall and drop them into stone walls or garden beds or into rivers, where they travel downstream and take root.

Getting rid of it

Getting rid of poison ivy is a chore, said Hagen, because the plant is hardy, will grow in just about any conditions, and is invasive. With a small infestation, she recommends going after the plant and its roots with loppers and applying weed and brush killer to the open cut on the stem. Larger patches can be fought back with some persistence and some Roundup or an organic acid-based herbicide — both of which come with drawbacks and controversy.

What Hughes does to remove poison ivy from her clients' properties is to go after the plant at the roots. Dressed in Tyvek suits with thick rubber gloves taped at the wrist, and overshoes, Hughes and her all-female team seek out the poison ivy and follow it to where it began, yanking it out and depositing it in black plastic bags that will then be hauled to the dump.

Persistence is necessary because it can keep coming back if people aren't watching for it.

"Poison ivy thrives when people aren't paying attention," said Hagen.

When it comes to disposing of poison ivy, the most important rule is to never, ever burn it, said Hagen. When burned, the oil from the plant becomes airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, causing an internal case of poison ivy that could require hospitalization.

It's also unwise to put poison ivy into a compost heap; anywhere it's thrown, it can take root and grow anew. The best advice Hagen and Hughes offer is to bag it and bring it to the dump, being careful not to get the oil on the outside of the bag.

Precautionary measures

Hughes and her employees are all susceptible to poison ivy, so they use extreme measures to ensure the urushiol oil doesn't contaminate their equipment, vehicles or skin.

After handling the ivy, Hughes and company carefully strip off their protective clothing and throw it away, and then scrub with Tecnu, a product that binds to the oil and prevents it from being absorbed into the skin.

"We follow the 15-minute rule," said Hughes. "You've got to get the oil off of you in 15 minutes or less if you're going to avoid getting the rash. And it's less than that for people with sensitive skin."

Using cold water, not hot, is best for washing the oil off the skin, said Dr. Christine Doherty of Balance Point Natural Medicine in Milford. Hot water can open the pores of the skin, allowing the oil to get in.

Another product that helps is Ivyblock, said Doherty. It creates a barrier and keeps the oil from being absorbed into the skin.

Anything that comes in contact with the oil should be washed immediately after exposure — including clothing, shoes, and especially pets, who can track the oil around the house. Unless it's exposed to rain or some sort of solvent like rubbing alcohol, urushiol can hang around for years, Hughes said.

nfoster@newstote.com


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