Everything You Wanted To Know About Poison Ivy (but were afraid to touch!)

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but were afraid to touch!

When it comes to Poison Ivy, for most people, it’s a long way from itch-misery to comfort. Often two to three weeks of medical applications and relentless itching and scratching. Yet with an understanding of the plant it is possible to eliminate or quickly ameliorate the problem. There’s a lot to know about rhus radicans . And there is probably as much misinformation about it as there is about snakes!

Article and illustrations by Mark Warren

There are several dozen plants in the South that are known to cause dermatitis to humans. Almost anyone in Georgia can name three: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Yet, though many of the names on that long list are familiar plants to us, you might be surprised at some of the entries. Here are a few: black eyed Susan, dandelion, daisy fleabane, bloodroot, virgin’s bower, buttercup, pokeweed, Queen Anne’s lace, horseweed, mullein, yellow pine, pawpaw and Virginia creeper.

This does not mean that every plant on that list is guaranteed to affect you adversely. I have handled all of the above many times incurring no problem at all. At the same time, I am very allergic to poison ivy. Some people are simply more sensitive than others to certain plants. Many of these listed plants require coming into contact with roots or sap while others cause a problem simply when you touch the leaves. It’s no wonder there is some confusion about which plant makes you itch. Confusing all this are the tiny animals you’ll never see during your walk in the woods or field – critters that insert mouthparts through your skin and induce itching … namely, chiggers.

The last plant in the above list is especially notable. Virginia creeper takes on its irritant qualities in the fall, when the leaves have turned to stunning scarlet and gold (the same autumnal colors as poison ivy). It is this plant, more than any other, that I have heard people incorrectly assign the name “poison oak.” It is not. Poison oak looks so much like poison ivy that the layperson should consider them one and the same. And

unlike poison ivy or oak, Virginia creeper produces blue berries. So first let’s learn how to identify the plant, poison ivy. If you think you already know it by sight, read on. You might learn something new.

Poison ivy is a compound plant, which means that what you might call a leaf is actually a leaflet. Three leaflets comprise a leaf, each leaflet being ovate or egg-shaped with its wider base and narrower tip. Therefore, the old adage leaves of three, let it be is botanically incorrect. It should read leaflets of three … but if you follow that line of

So which plant is this? thought, you’re going to miss out on lots of other plants that typically show three leaflets, like tick trefoil and some blackberry canes, both of which have edible fruits.

Compound plants arrange their leaflets in one of two ways: pinnate or palmate. Pinnate means “feather-shaped” while palmate resembles fingers spreading from a palm. Differentiating the two is only challenging when a compound leaf possesses just three leaflets, simply because three leaflets do not quickly express themselves as a feather-shape, as say the longer rows of leaflets on a locust or hickory tree. But if those three leaflets are all trying to point in, more or less, the same general direction (just as filaments on a feather all angle toward the tip), then it is pinnate – like poison ivy. Virginia creeper, on the other hand, is palmate. Its five leaflets point in multiple directions from a common center, more like the spokes of a wheel, trying to evenly distribute themselves among the 360 degrees of space available

No one can render a drawing or take a photograph or point out a specimen of poison ivy and say, “There’s what it looks like.” The plant has many variable appearances. But here are a few nuances of the plant’s physiology that are fairly reliable. Where the leaflets’ edges are closest to one another, their margins tend not to have serrations (teeth).

The most pronounced serrations, therefore, usually occur on the two outside leaflets on their outside margins (the margins not neighboring the middle leaflet). If there are serrations on the middle leaflet they tend to be closer to the tip than the base.

Each side leaflet is asymmetrical, with more leaflet-blade material showing on the outside of its mid-rib vein than the inside (closer to the middle leaflet). The middle leaflet tends to be symmetrical.

The leaflet stalk of the center leaflet is longer than the other two. Where the three leaflet stalks come together, a reddish pigment marks their convergence. Letting your eye rove down the leaf stalk, you’ll see where the compound leaf attaches to the stem.

In autumn when the entire compound leaf drops away, the scar that is left on the stem is slightly raised. Most leaf scars on other plants lie flat against the stem – as if the scar were singed there by a branding iron. Poison ivy’s leaf scar looks as if it’s trying to become a shelf. You can see these on older parts of the woody stem. There are plenty of exceptions to all of these “rules” I have mentioned, so always study many different leaf specimens on any given plant when you are attempting to identify.

Poison ivy’s small green flowers (five petals) emerge in late spring and early summer from the angle created by the leaf stalk and the stem. If the flowers are successfully pollinated they develop into grayish white berries. Mature vines love to climb, attaching with an abundance of air roots but without tendrils – the curlicue appendages some vines use to wrap around a supporting tree branch or other structure. These “hairy” vines, however, are not exclusive to poison ivy. Other vines look similar – climbing hydrangea being one of these. But climbing hydrangea’s branches and leaves grow opposite one another, like your arms emerging from your torso. Poison ivy grows its leaves (not leaflets) and branches in an alternate fashion, never opposite. Even in winter you can look up at the bare branches of a vine and distinguish this.

When the leaves emerge in spring they may be pale green, red or silver – or any combination of these. As they mature in summer the green color deepens and the surfaces of leaves become shiny as though covered with varnish. If a leaflet is broken off, a milky sap exudes. The poison ivy plant can appear as an herb, a shrub and a vine. And when a vine – because of its far-reaching branches – it can be mistaken as a tree. Branches stretching six or eight feet from the stem of the vine can look very much like they are extending directly from the trunk of the tree supporting the vine.

Poison ivy contains in every part of its anatomy – leaf, stalk, stem, flower, fruit, and root – an oil named urushiol. It is this oil that, when in contact with humans, can trigger a chain of events that range from itching on one end of the spectrum to death on the other.

All it takes for urushiol to surface from the plant is a bruise, which could be achieved as easily as by wind or insect disturbance on a leaf. When the oil gets on human (and only human) skin it takes about fifteen minutes for its molecules to bind with protein in the

deeper cells of epidermis, your outer layer of skin. If the skin area is callused – say soles of feet and palms – it takes longer. Though urushiol is water soluble, once the oil binds, it

will not wash off with water. Unbonded urushiol will.

What does urushiol actually do other than bind to the skin? Nothing. Not in this

small dosage. It’s what the body’s immune system does next that wreaks havoc. In larger

quantity urushiol has the ability to suppress the body’s production of a fatty acid called

prostaglandin, which, among other things, aids in the body’s battle against (of all things)

inflammation. Apparently, the human immune system takes umbrage at an oil with this

kind of potential. A full-blown immune reaction follows. This is what causes the itching

and blistering – the immune “cavalry” crowding into the affected cells.

It is easy to look at a bothersome poison ivy rash on your skin and believe that an

insidious plant actually deposited those invidious bumps there by some evil method. But

the fact is, those little blisters, the ceaseless itching, the sanguinary scratching and all the

attendant discomfort are created by your own well-meaning but over-zealous immune


Here’s an analogy to help you understand the process. One spring new neighbors

move into the house next door to you. Through your fence you watch them unload their

belongings. One of the items they carry into the house is a potted plant. It’s Japanese

honeysuckle! And you hate honeysuckle for the way it can overwhelm and dominate an

area! You assume your new neighbors are going to plant honeysuckle in their yard, which

means it will undoubtedly spread to yours. And though they never do this – they simply

keep the honeysuckle as a potted plant inside – as a defense barrier you decide to plant

kudzu along your fencerow. By the end of summer your house is smothered by kudzu.

The itching of urushiol-bonded skin can occur within hours of contact. Or it could be

a day or more. It depends upon the person’s sensitivity. And though most of us are born

not allergic to poison ivy, that condition usually changes. This can occur at any age, even

well into adulthood. And when it does, it almost always means that the allergy lasts for

the rest of a lifetime. However, just the opposite has occurred. Some people who suffered

as children develop an immunity as adults. And others, like those of African descent, may

never be allergic.

Urushiol can stay active on the surface of something for years. A shovel handle, for

example. And so it can easily be transfered, which gives rise to some of the myths about

poison ivy’s diabolical methods of traveling through the air. (“I just have to look at it and

I get it.”) Inside the plant – even a dead vine – the oil can remain viable for a century.

The rash that occurs is not systemic. It can’t spread by traveling through the body

to pop up somewhere new. That’s what the research says, and I believe it. Many people

How does it do what it does to us?

don’t. They say they have experienced relocations of the rash from within. More likely

they have had urushiol inadvertently transferred to a new locale on the body. This might

occur by contact with contaminated clothing or with house pets or simply by hand.

1) Don’t touch it. The easiest poison ivy preventative is nature awareness.

Recognizing the plant when you are near it. Avoiding contact with it.

If you know you have touched it, wash off immediately. Urushiol is water-


soluble, so it’s an easy task. Soap is really not necessary, though soap makes

the job easier because it binds with oil magnetically, speaking in the molecular

sense. This makes the oil easier to rinse, and rinsing is a key step in this washing.

If you simply cupped water in your hand from a creek and lifted that water to

the exposed area and rubbed the water around, you’d be making “urushiol soup”

and spreading it around over a larger surface area. In a soapless situation (but not

a hopeless one) get that body part down in the water and scrub. Let the creek’s

current carry away the oil. If you wait too long to do this – say, an hour – all the

washing in the world won’t rid you of the oil because it has bonded with the skin.

If you use soap, spare the creek and go to a sink.

Never tramp through poison ivy on a rainy day, even if you are wearing highly


protective clothing. Every raindrop that strikes a leaf bruises that leaf. Urushiol

exudes from the leaf and dissolves into the water droplets standing on the leaf.

When you brush by the plant, the urushiol soup bleeds through porous clothing

and contacts the skin. If the clothing is not porous – like rain gear – it remains on

the outside but because it’s wet (the soup) it can more easily transfer to you; for

example, by dripping down into your socks, bleeding through and covering the

ankles and feet.

4) Wear a urushiol shield. Commercial products are now available to apply to the

skin. Check sporting goods stores. I can’t speak for their efficacy because I’ve

never used them. They came out on the market after I had learned to make myself

immune to poison ivy. (More on that later.) There is a native plant of the South

that actually serves as a shield. Forgive me, but I never reveal its name since

there are now commercial products available for this. If everyone knew about this

plant, I fear we would see its demise in the wild, and this plant is too valuable for

other reasons to risk the possibility of losing it.

5) Never use an axe on a thick poison ivy vine unless you are fully protected by

clothing, face and hands included. A severing blow with an axe can spray oil


6) Never, never burn poison ivy. Smoke carries the oil, which can then alight on

your skin. Or worse, enter your body through the mouth and nose to reach the

lungs. This can be fatal.

When the rash appears, the first course of action is to wash the area thoroughly.

Though the oil that has already penetrated cannot be retrieved, any excess oil that has

not yet permeated the skin needs to be removed so as not to be transferred. Consider

everything that might have had contact with the oil. Clothing. Your fingernails as you

scratched. Tools. People you touched. Your tent. Your dog. You can wash practically


What we need to know to protect ourselves

What to do when you get it

Some researchers, in explaining how a rash is not spread by scratching an existing

rash, might be overlooking one factor. They are trying to assure you that the oozing

liquid that comes from the blisters of a rash is not a contaminating fluid that will spread

the rash. That’s true. But … what if there is still unbonded urushiol at the site of the rash.

Remember, it can persevere for years. Since it is water-soluble and since your immune

cast-off fluid (lymph, leukocytes, etc.) released by bursting the blisters is water-based,

could you not be making urushiol soup with your own ooze? Could this not widen the

affected area? Not to mention making it easier to transfer elsewhere.

Once you have washed the rash-afflicted area, it’s time to apply medication. In my

youth, the standard lotion was calamine, which my mother literally coated me with one

summer when I was six-years old. I was covered with poison ivy rash and was actually

bedridden for a long while. The calamine lotion did nothing for me and hasn’t since then,

except to harbor in me an abiding aversion to its smell.

A few years later I found relief with a commercial product which was merely a mix

of alcohol and tannic acid – an astringent that draws up tissue, tightens it. I assume that

the constricting of the tissue forced the immune fluids deeper into the tissue where it

could not erupt so easily. There was definitely relief but only with lots of applications.

Then came the corticosteroids in a tube. Hydrocortisone, for example. They also

presented relief and healing. Again, lots of applications.

As a teenager I once again succumbed to an overwhelming bout of the rash. I never

knew how I made contact with the oil. Perhaps I was inundated by smoke from poison

ivy in a pile of brush that a neighbor burned. There is no worse exposure, as the volatile

oil travels with smoke and can envelope a person. If that is indeed how I came in contact,

I am lucky that I did not inhale it, for drawing urushiol into the lungs is a worse case

scenario. People die from it frequently.

The typical story for this tragedy would be this: a gardener goes out in early spring

to prepare the soil for her seeds. She weeds and digs and pulls up unidentifiable roots

of plants that are still in their leafless winter guise. Then she burns the pile of discarded

material, some of which is poison ivy. If she breathes a little bit of the fumes into her

lungs, then poison ivy can become systemic and affect joints and other areas with

swelling and discomfort. If she breathes in enough, her lungs will become infected and

she will die.

In my adolescent bout with the rash I went to the hospital for cortisone injections.

This was a synthetic cortisone, created in a laboratory. The results were good, and I

began to realize some relief within a day. Short-term use of such medicinal steroids can

be very beneficial with inflammations. Long-term use, however, depresses the body’s

immune system and stresses the adrenal glands, which make the body’s own natural


There are quite a few natural and historic treatments for the rash that come down to

us from Native Americans. The Cherokee people defined “plant societies” and poison ivy

belonged to the category called the “warrior society.” They named the plant “my friend,”

believing that medicinal plants growing in close proximity to poison ivy possessed

more potency. Many American Indian poison ivy medicines are teas used topically

to wash the rash – black birch, for example, whose inner and outer barks contain the

analgesic wintergreen oil. Tannic acid, the afore-mentioned astringent helps to draw up

the tissue. Good sources for tannin are the root of New Jersey Tea (a shrub), oak, beech

and hemlock barks, acorns, oak leaves, agrimony, cinquefoil, chestnut leaves, sanicle

and ragweed. Tannin is also antiseptic, which lends itself well to preventing or treating

infection of overly scratched poison ivy blisters.

But no plant in my experience can rival jewelweed, a wild impatiens also

called “touch me not” for its exploding seedpods. This succulent plant grows in wet

areas, especially along streams where ample sunlight breaks through the forest. By

crushing any part of the plant, a mucilaginous fluid is easily extracted, especially from

the stem before the plant toughens in late summer. This juice contains a natural cortisone,

alleged to be kinder to the adrenals and immune system than the synthesized laboratory

product. Simply smear the mucilage onto the rash, using the crushed plant itself as the

applicator, and relief is immediate. Apply two to three times a day. Within a day and half

you will see the rash subsiding and throughout this time be virtually itch-free.

Now for a leap of faith. And a word of warning at the end of this section. I have

seen many a student balk at this claim, yet it is true: You can create your own annual

immunity to poison ivy by eating a newly opened leaflet once a week for seven to nine

weeks. Each April, I ingest the first leaflet I find that is still reddish and/or silver and

the size of my little fingernail. I repeat this on a weekly basis – one leaflet per week for

nine weeks. As the spring progresses it is more difficult to find new leaflets and so I

often “farm” poison ivy a bit by pruning and hoping for the return of new growth.

I had heard of this technique for years before I tried it myself and had wondered if it

was an old husband’s tale, until I met with and talked to people who had done it. When I

had heard testimonials from three trusted friends, I took the plunge.

I’ll never forget that first time – deliberately handling and breaking off a young

poison ivy leaflet, seeing the milky sap bead up on the broken stalk, placing it on my

tongue, chewing and (gulp) swallowing. Immediately I was imaging the rash going

rampant on my tongue, esophagus, stomach and who knew where else.

It didn’t. All went well. Nine weeks and nine leaflets later, I ran a test. I picked a

mature poison ivy leaflet and rubbed it on the inside of my forearm and never washed it

off. After an hour a small individual bump – just a bump, not a blister – rose up on the

skin. It never itched. Within another twenty minutes it disappeared. Success!

I have repeated this process every spring for many years and have never experienced

a problem. At least a dozen of my friends have also followed this procedure, and none

has experienced a problem.

The immunity lasts for me from late spring until midwinter, so I am most careful to

avoid the plant in early spring. The only year that the technique did not work for me was

the year I got into poison ivy and developed a rash before my nine-week installments

were complete. I finished out the doses but was not immune for the year.

Now for the warning: First of all, I am not a physician and I, of course, cannot

prescribe a medical procedure for you. I am simply and honestly sharing my experience

with you. Remember that every person possesses his own degree of sensitivity to poison

ivy. I feel certain that one day I will hear about someone who in all good faith attempts

this immunity-formula and, because of their personal chemistry, develops internal blisters

that could be life-threatening. So if you try it, the decision must be yours.

I hear this question all the time. Actually, to ask the question is a bit narrow-

Making yourself immune

So what good is this plant?

minded. It assumes that all things in nature are designed for us. Ecology is much more

complicated than that. And though it may seem that we humans take center seat in the

affairs of the world, remember that the same might be said for dinosaurs in their time.

The earth has fared very well through the eons before our arrival. In fact, most of our

impact on the natural world is negative, infinitely more so than any other living thing.

Yet the plants continue to be our most valuable assets. As a green plant, poison

ivy serves as one of those “friendly agents” capturing the sun’s energy for use on our

planet. Every bit of energy you use comes from the sun and is captured for you by green

plants, stored inside the sugar they produce. (You acquire energy by eating plants or

eating animals that have eaten plants.) One of the by-products of this miracle that we call

photosynthesis is the oxygen that we breathe and the recycling of the carbon dioxide that

we exhale. I’ve seen deer and horses eat the leaves of poison ivy … raccoons, songbirds

and crows eat the berries. The flowers produce a nectar important to honeybees.

Plants have evolved interesting methods by which to protect themselves from

predation – from thorns to highly toxic chemicals – and we seem to have no trouble

admiring those defenses, most of the time. We have even emulated these plant features

by our inventions of barbed wire and pesticides. Poison ivy’s defense just hits us close

to home, and we feel persecuted to acquire it when we are “not harming a thing, just

out walking in the woods.” Think of this plant as a teacher – like venomous snakes -

explaining to us the value of being observant in nature.

Mark Warren owns and directs Medicine Bow Wilderness School, teaching Native

American survival skills in north Georgia. For more information, call 706-864-5928 or

email Mr. Warren at medbow@alltel.net. To view the school’s class offerings, please

visit the Medicine Bow web site at www.medicinebow.net