Do you have suggestions for managing poison ivy?
— Holly in Grapevine
Dear Holly –
Initially I should mention that people vary greatly in their sensitivity to poison ivy. Some people should just stay away from it because no level of caution or post exposure treatment seems to prevent a reaction. Others dive in up to their shoulders with seemingly no effect. I suggest that each of us become familiar with how sensitive we are as well as how sensitive our crew members are and use appropriate caution. Extreme cases may need medical intervention so please proceed with caution until you know how sensitive you are.
The first step in poison ivy management is learning to recognize it in summer and winter. Three leaflets and a shiny appearance are a tipoff for me. Other plants have three leaves and others have similar shaped leaves but poison ivy has a distinctive look that most people can recognize with some practice. The leaves are the biggest hazard during the growing season because of the oil that transfers easily and attaches to the skin. In summer we are often wearing shorts and short sleeves, making exposure to bare skin more likely. Winter is a problem too because poison ivy is less conspicuous and winter brush clearing often results in broken stems releasing sap that can also cause a rash. All parts of the plants are potentially hazardous, not just the leaves, so treat all climbing vines with a hairy surface with caution. The smooth younger stems have a characteristic “wandering” appearance that is easy to recognize with practice.
In my view the secret weapon for preventing rash after exposure to poison ivy is isopropyl rubbing alcohol which is inexpensive and easy to get at any pharmacy or grocery. We buy gallons of it in quart bottles each season. A landscaper blog recommends having alcohol in the field and using it immediately after exposure. I apply it liberally (several handsful) and wash it off with water after rubbing it on the exposed skin for several seconds. Alcohol also works after the rash appears, in my experience, by “unhooking” the bond that the ivy oils make with the skin. The ivy oils seems to have a greater affinity for the alcohol than skin. Washing with warm soapy water is fine after treatment with alcohol. Before alcohol treatment, soap can move the oils around and affect other parts of your body near the exposed area. Showers are strongly preferred to baths since the oil reportedly floats in bath water.
If you are intent on ivy removal, long rubber gloves are helpful as well as long sleeve and pants. Gemplers.com has some shoulder length gloves that work well for me. We rarely used herbicides but for big vines outside your organic area, you may want to consider carefully cutting the vine (not with a chainsaw) and poisoning the stump. If you can get a mower into the area that ivy is invading, repeated mowing will deplete its reserves and eventually suppress it. Flame weeding may work but it risks vaporizing the oils. Running a string trimmer in shorts runs a high risk of exposure if poison ivy is in the area. Mowing probably also runs that risk but I have not experienced a problem after mowing ivy. The conventional wisdom is to not burn poison ivy because of concern about creating ivy vapor but I have no personal experience there, fortunately. I recommend not burning ivy vines or brush that may contain it.
An important preventive approach is probably to keep large vines that may produce berries under control. Birds seem to like the berries and spread the seed around.
Don’t forget to wash ivy-exposed clothes as soon as you take them off. I hear reports of ivy contaminated clothes exposing whoever does the laundry, which may not contribute to domestic harmony. It took me weeks one winter to realize that a particular sweatshirt had ivy oils inside one sleeve. One trip through the washing machine with regular laundry soap solved the problem.
So as not to leave the impression that poison ivy has no redeeming features, it does have great fall color and reportedly in Scandinavia it is planted in the landscape for that purpose. Ivy oils are also the active ingredient in the homeopathic remedy Rhus tox that is sometimes used to treat inflammation and sore muscles.
Good luck with your weed problem and stock up soon with rubbing alcohol before you begin.
Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School
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Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.