Poison Ivy

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner | June 1, 2022
From Missouri Conservationist: June 2022
Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy

I love hot sticky weather. There is nothing like the feel of the sun beating down on my skin as I sip water before a long hike through a forest.

Unfortunately, a plant that I’m highly allergic to grows best in this weather. I get itchy just thinking about it.

Most people in the United States have heard of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). While not uncommon, it’s more prominent in the Midwest and eastern areas. Being born and raised in Missouri, I was immune to it all throughout my childhood. I could run through the woods scraping my knees without one single bump. Not a rash to be seen.

Adulthood is another story. In my early twenties, I had one bad reaction to poison ivy and since then I have become severely allergic to this beautiful plant. I don’t know how it happened or what caused my immune system to change so drastically, but it did and now I have to work hard to keep enjoying the trips to the forests I adore.

Beyond the Itch

Being a nature lover, I like to look at the entire picture. Instead of cursing the oily leaves of poison ivy, I set aside my discomfort for education. Poison ivy has many benefits. These are not widely discussed because the focus is on the intense skin rash it causes for a large percentage of the population. It swells. It itches. It throbs. It seeps and oozes. It looks like a biblical plague.

But if we ignore the oily urushiol that causes breakouts, and examine the plant behind the scratching, it is possible to not only see vegetation and cover for wildlife populations, but also a beautiful green vine.

It grows in abundance. It offers shelter and protection for insects and small mammals. It provides shade and climbs easily. It is a strong hearty plant. These are all great attributes in nature.

Birds, insects, and animals have immunities to the reactions humans often suffer thanks to their close relationship with it. Feathers, exoskeletons, and fur protect their bodies and the leaves, flowers, and berries are a tasty treat for deer and other herbivores.

ID is Key

Identifying poison ivy is most important. When I spot it on the trail, I can keep my distance.

The saying, “leaves of three, let them be,” is helpful. However, just sticking to this mantra can be deceiving.

Box elder, fragrant sumac, eastern poison oak, and even poison sumac or Virginia creeper often mimic the characteristics of poison ivy. These species have three leaves at times, but those with berries host colorful hairy fruit instead of the white waxy variety you will find on poison ivy. The stems, stalks, and heights they climb are also very different from the real thing.

According to MDC’s Field Guide, Toxicodendron radicans is best described to have three leaves of variable size and shape. The end leaf is at the center with two uneven ones on either side. These leaves take on different textures and hues throughout the year. They are small and green in the spring but grow throughout the summer and then turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall.

The stems are light brown and hairy, with raised pores. They climb by aerial rootlets and the stems trail until they find support to climb up. Without support, they take on a shrub-like structure with single stems.

From May to June, poison ivy sprouts greenish-white flowers in fragrant clusters of 1–4 inches. Between August and November, white waxy round berries ripen in grapelike clusters.

To properly spot poison ivy, there are some key identifiers to look for:

  • A woodlike vine that often has shrublike habitat or climbs up fences, poles, trees, etc.
  • Three leaves: one end/center and two side leaflets with unequal proportions
  • The end leaf at the center has a stalk of about ½–1¾ inches long which is longer than the stalks on the other two leaflets.
  • Reddish tinge in spring; mostly green in summer; red, orange, or yellow in the fall
  • Waxy white berries (not fuzzy)
  • Loose, drooping flower and fruit clusters that arise from leaf bases along the stems
  • Can reach as high as 60 feet, often in trees

Maintaining it in Large Spaces

When I bought my home a few years ago, the yard was completely overgrown. I didn’t notice the huge poison ivy vines choking some of the trees in the back corner. Many homeowners don’t realize how easily poison ivy spreads. If you have space, leaving it for wildlife is beneficial to ecosystems, but it is not easy to contain. In older neighborhoods, like mine, poison ivy grows everywhere. It’s not easy to remove or contain, but proper disposal was a necessity for me.

Removing it safely is just as important as identifying and avoiding contact. In the past, people have tried burning it, but this can lead to severe lung infections because it becomes airborne. There are plenty of sprays available, but in my experience many of them only kill the leaves and it comes back.

Digging poison ivy out by the roots and cutting it up for personal or city/county composting has helped with the smaller vines that form in the early stages of growth. For older, thicker vines like the main ones I found in my backyard, professional poison ivy control may need to be contacted.

When the poison ivy control service came to my house, he said the vines in our trees were some of the oldest he’d ever encountered. He sawed through the base of the root and poured a poison ivy killing chemical directly into the source.

I was warned that a few sprouts would pop up the next year and would need to be removed. Because I prefer more natural means, I found that spraying the plant with vinegar, then dumping boiling water on it instantly kills poison ivy and makes it much safer for me to dig out the roots without a reaction.

In more rural areas, goats may have their own important role in keeping poison ivy breakouts at bay. They eat it in abundance and are the best known natural removal service. It’s a win/win for people and animals.

First Aid for Breakouts

After coming in contact with poison ivy, it is important to scrub it off in a cold/lukewarm shower to remove any residue that may have soaked into the skin. Never underestimate the healing power of water but avoid hot water as that spreads rashes. There is nothing like a cool rush of water to ease a reaction and soothe itching.

If a rash does occur, oatmeal baths, cold compresses, and anti-itch cream will ease the effects. A simple at-home cream can be made by mixing 3 teaspoons of baking soda with 1 teaspoon of water. Oral antihistamines can help, or for a more holistic approach, apple-cider vinegar may be applied to the skin for pain relief and to reduce redness.

Severe swelling, fever, difficulty breathing, or spreading to the face, eyes, lips, and other areas are extreme reactions that require medical care. These are all symptoms of a poison ivy allergy.

There are studies that examine the possibility that drinking goat’s milk helps people build a tolerance to urushiol. Unpasteurized is considered the most medicinal, but I have benefitted from drinking pasteurized goat’s milk during the hot summer months to keep my skin safe.

For any vegans or those who abstain from goat byproduct, there is another potential aid: mangoes. Mangoes contain urushiol. The theory is that eating small quantities of mangoes helps put just enough of this chemical into one’s system that the body builds immunity. I have tested it and can attest that the more mangoes and goat cheese I eat, the less poison ivy affects me. It is always best to talk with your doctor before taking these routes, but they hold some merit within the medical community.

Taking a scientific view of poison ivy makes it seem like less of a threat. Yes, it can cause harmful irritations, but that is due to the chemical compounds of the oil it secretes. It is not acid. It is not a poison. It is a living plant doing its best to survive and procreate, like everything in this world.

Poison ivy has its place in nature. We can coexist and minimize the ill-effects with proper caution, care, and removal.


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