Poison Ivy was here when the first settlers arrived, but it with suburban development it has become much more wide-spread, since it lives naturally at the edges of woodlands, just where we tend to build new developments. This perennial plant, which takes many forms, from ground-hugging bush to climbing vine, is a scourge, hurting adults, children and pets and causing severe reactions in sensitive people. About 15% of people have no reaction, luckily children under five can also often not react, but like all allergies, exposure can easily lead to future reactions, so no-one is really immune for life.
Poison Ivy contains a chemical – Urushiol – which is an oil that quickly dries and is easily transferred from one place to another, whether it’s skin, clothing, door-handles or tools. It is this feature that makes it such a problem.
Is it Really Poison Ivy?
Because many people worry about poison-ivy, lots of plants get mistaken for it, so the first step, if you spot something suspicious, is to make sure it really is Poison Ivy.
The old, leaves of three, let it be, is a good start, but other plants also have three leaves. Since this is a variable plant, the following group of indicators should all be present to be sure you have a real problem. Of course, don’t pick a bit to check – treat this plant with respect!
- The leaf is usually smooth edged or only slightly toothed
- The leaf surface is somewhat glossy
- The leaves are in clusters of three leaflets, each on a long stalk and growing as a group on their own stem and connected to the main plant
- The leaves alternate along the stems, that is, they are not paired on opposite sides of the stem
- The plant has no thorns
If your plant has all these characteristics, you have poison ivy. As well, you may see clusters of small green flowers or white berries, lower down on the stems.
Ways Not to Get Rid of Poison Ivy
Whatever you choose to do, avoid the following ‘ideas’, which won’t work and can even kill you.
Don’t set fire to it – the smoke is extremely toxic and can kill you
Don’t mow it down This will just spray the poison all over the place, including you and the mower, so every time you mow the lawn you will get more rashes.
Don’t just grab a spade and dig it out – again you will just get it all over your tools and clothes and spread the problem further. Anyway, it has deep roots that persist and are hard to remove.
How to Kill Poison Ivy
There are two possible approaches, the organic method and the chemical method.
- The Chemical Method – Poison Ivy is susceptible to the chemical weed-killer glyphosate, sold as Round-Up. Even in some areas where chemicals are banned for home use, you can still buy this product to control Poison Ivy. It is also susceptible to triclopyr, sold as Brush-B-Gon. Remember that both these products will kill every plant they touch, so only spray in a controlled way directly onto the leaves of the Poison Ivy. Follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully and use a dedicated sprayer for this job – don’t use it for regular pest-control products afterwards or you may kill your plants with the residues in the spayer.
The leaves and stems will die in a couple of weeks or so after spraying. Keep some spray handy, as you will probably get re-growth unless it is just a small plant. Spray any re-growth as soon as you see it and keep doing that until nothing more is growing. It may take two or three follow-up sprayings to completely eradicate the plants. Once it has all rotted down the area can be cleared and planted, but dying plants will still contain the poison, so wait a couple of months at least, till there is nothing left to see.
- The Organic Method – the simplest way is to spray boiling water on the plant. Of course this will damage any surrounding plants too, so be careful. This will kill the top-growth, but it will quickly re-sprout and many, many applications may be necessary to eliminate a large patch. This is really only practical for a few seedlings.
A more thorough result can come from weeding it out, but this is very tricky. If the plant is growing up a tree, saw through the base of the trunk and leave it a few weeks to thoroughly die. Wash the saw in cold water and rinse in vinegar. For plants on the ground you will have to handle live material.
The day before you start, water the area thoroughly to soften the soil. Dress in old clothes, covering your arms, neck, and tucking your trousers into your socks. Wear washable shoes.
Get some heavy-duty large plastic shopping bags –the ones from expensive stores – and put one over your pulling hand. Regular thin bags may tear and let the poison through. With your hand inside the bag, pull up the plants, trying to get as much root as possible and transfer the pulled plants to deep inside another bag. Having someone help you is worthwhile. Never touch your face for a moment while you do this.
Once you have it all bagged up, get your helper to open all the doors in your house, go straight to the bathroom and have them open the washing machine door. Put all your clothes and shoes in and turn on a cold wash cycle. Now get them to open the shower door and get in, taking a shower with no soap. The poison dissolves in soap and will spread onto sensitive parts of your body! Then take a normal shower.
The next day, repeat the whole process, using a spade this time to dig up as many root pieces as you can. You will probably need to repeat this process as soon as you see any new pieces sprouting, until nothing new grows back, which could take several attempts.
You can see why even dedicated organic gardeners resort to chemicals when it comes to poison ivy!
Good luck with eliminating this vicious plant – and take care!