Poison ivy—the summer scourge

I hear that there are people who are unaffected by poison ivy, but I am certainly not one of them. I spent my first week of 7th grade itching my way through a poison ivy rash all over my face and arms, and a recent trip to help a friend pull some plants kept my medicine cabinet full of hydrocortisone products. While I was thrilled to discover that the majority of North Mississippi Park is free from this pestilent plant, poison ivy is certainly worth knowing something about.

Poison ivy is scientifically known as Toxicodendron radicans, which means “toxic tree with roots.” The old saying “Leaves of Three, Let it Be” is accurate, but it’s important to note that many completely harmless plants also have three leaflets. Poison ivy, tricky plant that it is, can take the form of a small plant, a shrub or a vine. As a vine, poison ivy hugs tree trunks and grips the bark with conspicuous thread-like roots that make the vine look like a giant, hairy caterpillar, but in other forms poison ivy can be difficult to spot.

The itch we get from poison ivy is really an allergic reaction to a chemical found on the plant. The plant uses this chemical, called urushiol, to keep itself from drying out—it seems to be an evolutionary accident that humans developed an allergy to it. In fact, other animals eat the leaves and fruits of poison ivy without any reaction whatsoever. Regardless, most people are sensitive to poison ivy, and a person’s reaction to the plant can change throughout his or her lifetime.

If you know you have touched poison ivy, the best thing to do is to wash as soon as possible, ideally within an hour. Even rinsing your skin with cold water can help prevent a rash, but if soap is available by all means use it. Wiping your skin with rubbing alcohol can also neutralize the chemical and prevent a rash. Be sure to wash any clothing, pets or tools that may have touched the plant as well—a seldom-used pair of hiking boots has been responsible for mid-winter poison ivy outbreaks at my house!

If you are unfortunate enough to develop a rash, you can make yourself more comfortable with calamine lotion or other anti-itch remedies. I personally have found that running very hot water on the rash can be quite effective—take a hot shower or hold the rash under a hot faucet. It will itch like crazy at first, but soon you’ll be comfortable. Unfortunately, there is nothing that will make the rash go away faster; poison ivy reactions tend to last two or three weeks before they clear up.

While it may look bad, poison ivy is not contagious, and you cannot get it from someone who has a rash. Do, however, stay away from anyone who is burning brush that might contain poison ivy—breathing smoke with urushiol in it can give you a dangerous rash in your mouth, nose and lungs.

About this time of year poison ivy becomes easier to spot, as its leaves begin turning red before most other plants, and its grayish-white berries clustered near the stem give an additional clue. In fact, poison ivy berries can be beneficial to birds and other animals, as they stick around on the plant into the late fall and provide cold-weather food. If you need to get rid of poison ivy plants around your home, however, some eco-friendly methods include pulling it up by hand (wear long gloves!) or pouring boiling water or vinegar on the leaves. Just remember, dead plants can still give you a rash.

Join us for the following nature programs. Reservations required, call 763-559-6700.

River Yoga Series, Saturdays, August 1, 8, 15 and 22, 9:30-10:45 a.m., ages 14+, $32/four sessions, or $12/one session based on availability (call 763-694-7693). Campfire Foods on a Stick, Saturday, August 22, 1-3 p.m., ages 6+, $5/person. Bird Banding, Saturday, August 29, 8 a.m.-noon, all ages, free, no registration required.

Free Family Fundays: Come by on Sunday afternoons anytime between 1-3 p.m. for a free family program: Mini Enchanted Forests on August 2; Fairy Fun on August 9; Prairie Insects on August 16; Stream Table on August 23; and Dragonflies on August 30. Reservations not required. Call us at 763-694-7693 for info or visit Threeriversparks.org.