Poison Ivy is a plant with quite a reputation. Knowing how to identify it and being respectful of its presence are the first keys to avoiding the rash. The other is getting to know the plants that relieve the reaction.
Nature is inherently balanced such that if a poison is found in nature then nature often provides a cure. So it is with poison ivy. Quite often the antidote to poison ivy -jewelweed- will be found growing close by.
Latin name: Toxicodendron radicans
Common name: Poison Ivy
Botanical family: Anacardaceae (Cashew family/ Sumac Family) Other members of this family include poison sumac and poison oak. They all contain Urushiol which is the allergy causing oil.
Habitat: Poison ivy grows well in a number of different habitats. It would be easier to say where it doesn’t grow, which are: deserts and places of high altitudes. Poison Ivy is not completely shade tolerant and when it is found in forests, it will be more prolific on the edges where it gets more light. (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)
Botanical Identification: Poison ivy is not a true ivy. It is a deciduous, woody vine/shrub native to Canada and the United States. Poison ivy is a highly adaptive plant, which changes its growth patterns depending on the light and the structures surrounding it. You can find poison ivy growing as:
- a ground cover – short up to 2 ft. tall
- a small shrub – if wind is a factor, the stem can become strong and woody
- a climbing vine – poison ivy has the ability to climb in response to touching structures like fences, trees, stumps or even rock walls. (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2010/ferris_jaco/Poison_Ivy/Home.html)
“Leaves of three let it be”
Poison Ivy leaves are always in clusters of three. The color of the leaves will change through the seasons, so the three leaf cluster is a reliable way to identify it. The top leaf has a longer stem than the two side leaves. (MacKinnon,et.al.2009)
Leaves are pointy, sometimes knotched and sometimes smooth edged. The leaves are usually glossy-green, but can also appear dull especially if it is dry. (http://www.fcps.edu)
The leaves are easily recognizable in the spring when they droop in a foreboding way and have a reddish tinge to them. In the fall the leaves will turn a scarlet/ green color. (http://www.herbcraft.org/poisonivyID.pdf)
Poison ivy flowers from May to July. The flowers grow in clusters and are white/green or yellow/green. (http://www.fcps.edu)
The berries appear in mid summer and stay on the plant most of the year. They are a creamy white color. The berries provide food for many birds and animals. (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)
Being able to recognize poison ivy is one way to avoid the rash. Even when poison ivy plants are dead, dry or withered, the oil remains active for up to 5 years. It will also remain active on surfaces such as clothing, tools etc.(poisonivy.aiser.com)
Understanding Poison Ivy
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac contain an oleoresin in their leaves, stems and roots called urushiol. (Pronounced Ooo-roo-shee-all) The word comes from Japan and means lacquer.
This oil is released when any part of the plant is bruised or crushed. In the height of summer , it is urushiol that gives poison ivy the waxy or glossy look to its leaves. (poisonivy.aesir.com)
Urushiol on its own is actually a harmless substance. However, once it has penetrated the first layer of our skin (epidermis) and has entered the dermis, it binds with proteins in our skin cells and creates a new compound. It is our immune systems reaction to this metabolized compound that causes the typical poison ivy rash which erupts in the form of swollen tissue, blisters and a terrible itch. I sometimes wonder if the itch is our immune system trying to get us to scratch the “new cells” right off.
It only takes a very small amount of the oil to cause the reaction. A quarter ounce of urushiol is all that would be needed to give the entire population of earth the rash. The amount of oil that would fit on the head of a needle is enough to infect 500 people. So you can imagine how little it takes to give you quite a rash. (poisonivy.aesir.com)
Urushiol can take as little as 10 minutes and up to 72 hours to penetrate the skin. This depends on the thickness of the skin that has touched the urushiol. If you are able to wash it off before it penetrates the epidermis, you may indeed avoid the rash. Once urushiol has been absorbed, it is impossible to remove it. (American Academy of Dermatology)
Use Cold Water
One mistake people often make is using warm or hot water to wash off the oil. If you are trying to avoid the rash, use cold water. Warmer temperatures will open the pores of the skin and speed up the the absorption of urushiol. Always wash with cold water and a nice oily soap. Even better if you can find a herbalist who makes a Jewel weed soap.
People who have had poison ivy may wonder why it comes back, even when they haven’t been in touch with the plant. Others may wonder why they are seemingly immune to its effects.
“I get the rash just by walking close to poison ivy”
This is a statement I often hear. It does require contact with urushiol to cause a rash. People who have already had poison ivy will find that the rash can erupt even when they haven’t been near the plant. This is due to the fact that poison ivy is now a part of their anatomy. The oil has bonded chemically with the skin and will erupt when the body gets over heated or stressed. Contrary to popular belief, the blisters do not spread the rash. If you find the rash erupting in different areas at different times, this is due tot he time it takes for the urushiol to penetrate the skin. The oil CAN remain active and alive for years on clothing, tools, gloves etc and can also be carried on pets fur. (poisonivy.aesir.com)
“I’m Immune to Poison Ivy”
Why some people get poison ivy while others can walk through it without ever contracting the rash is a bit of a mystery to me. I have read that 15% of people are immune, but that if they are exposed to the oil a number of times they will eventually have a response. I was one of those people who never got the rash. I would walk through poison ivy and not get it. On camping trips when everyone would get the rash, I never did. Then when I began studying poison ivy’s antidote, I tested it out. I was knee and elbow deep in the poison ivy. I now know poison ivy quite personally. Although I do get the rash, it really is not severe at all compared to other rashes I have seen. This could be due to contact with only a small amount of the oil, or my immune system may luckily have a weaker response.
Poison Ivy Remedies
I have been treating poison ivy with success for over ten years, using plants which are used extensively by the First Nations peoples. These herbs also tend to share the same habitat as poison ivy. Also useful for other types of rashes and skin eruptions, they are plants worth learning about.
You can read about them here.
- Sweet Fern (coming soon)
Sweet Song Products for Poison Ivy Rash
Stories say that poison ivy grows far and wide to remind us to pay attention. It is a plant that keeps humans out. There is a disconnect from nature that happened long ago in white culture. Poison Ivy has a unique purpose in how it causes us to wake up a bit while in nature and tread lightly. (jim mcdonald herbcraft.org)
I am very interested in learning stories about poison ivy from the First Nations. If anyone wants to share a story in the comments, I would be most thankful.
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Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal A Completer Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-55643-779-3
Weiner, Michael A. Earth Medicine- Earth Foods, Plant Remedies, Drugs and Natural Foods of the North American Indians. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York, New York. 1972. Library of Congress Number: 73-167802
Hutchens, Alma R. Indian Herbology of North America. Merco, Windsor, Ontario.1973. Library Catalog Number: 615.321.RS 164
Tortura, Gerard J. , Derrickson, Bryan. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 12th Edition. John Wiley & Sons Inc. Hoboken, NJ. 2009. ISBN: 978-0-470-08471-7