Best to admire poisn ivy's lovely leaves from a distance

Poison ivy may be food for birds, but it is quite the irritant for people

  • Note the three leaves and reddish hairs, or aerial rootlets, that allow poison ivy vines to cling to tree trunks and fences.

    Note the three leaves and reddish hairs, or aerial rootlets, that allow poison ivy vines to cling to tree trunks and fences. Courtesy of Maggie Bednarek

  • Note the three leaves and reddish hairs, or aerial rootlets, that allow poison ivy vines to cling to tree trunks and fences.

    Note the three leaves and reddish hairs, or aerial rootlets, that allow poison ivy vines to cling to tree trunks and fences. Courtesy of Maggie Bednarek

  • Poison ivy leaves can turn red in the fall.

    Poison ivy leaves can turn red in the fall. Daily Herald File Photo

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted7/5/2019 12:42 PM

No plant is better known or more notorious than poison ivy. Think of poison ivy as a vine with aspirations.

In some instances, it seems to be standing alone like a tree with a corkscrew trunk. In fact, it was probably wrapped around a dead snag that decomposed, leaving the healthy vine behind. In other situations, it grows about 3-5 feet tall as a -- get this term -- "subshrub."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As the old saying goes, "Leaves of three, let it be." There are a variety plants, including some beautiful wildflowers, with a trifoliate appearance, but none of these are vines. With these flowers in mind, please remember "leaves of three" does not mean "spray herbicide on me."

When it comes to preferred habitats, poison ivy is not too particular. It can be found growing on virtually any kind of soil, both in open areas and in shady locations. It does particularly well in calcareous soils along lake margins and stream banks.

While poison ivy may irritate a human's skin, it satisfies a hungry bird's stomach. In fact, more than 60 species of birds dine on poison ivy's drooping white berries. Everything from catbirds and kinglets to thrushes and woodpeckers are happy to dine at the Ivy Cafe.

O.K., let's get down to it. The rash most of us get from poison ivy is caused by coming in contact with urushiol, an oil found in the leaves, stems, flowers, berries, and roots of poison ivy.

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Since urushiol is an allergen, medical folks refer to the skin rash as an allergic contact dermatitis. The rash generally appears within eight to 48 hours after contact with urushiol. Remember, you don't have to actually touch the plant to be affected.

Say, for example, your dog has the opportunity to go on an adventure in a nearby woods. You greet him at the door with a hug and lots of pets. The next morning, you wake up with a puffy face and red hands. Odds are, the dog had been in some poison ivy shortly before returning home.

Keep in mind that the rash is not spread by scratching the itchy skin. In about 10 days, the rash should clear up.

If you know you touched poison ivy, washing the affected area with strong soap and water is the first thing to do. Should the rash develop, some relief can be found in nonprescription antihistamines, calamine lotion, aloe vera, and taking cool baths.

The best way to avoid getting a poison ivy rash is to avoid the plant. Hopefully, this article will help you to do that. I also hope it does not keep you from exploring the woods because, believe it not, poison ivy can be an attractive feature along a nature walk.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I thought I was alone in actually admiring this noxious plant until I came across the following passage written by Donald Stokes, " ... the plant is strangely alluring, its leaves tempting to touch in summer when they are shiny, or to collect in autumn when they turn brilliant colors."

Take it from me, resist this botanical temptation.

Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Send questions and comments to him at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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