Organic Gardening: Dealing with poison ivy at home

Brian Allnutt
Special to The Detroit News

From a strictly botanical point of view, Toxicodendron radicans is a fascinating plant.

It has multiple growing habits in the wild, appearing either as a ground cover, vine or small shrub. Unlike many species it seems to be adapting well to climate change. Its growth and potency swells with increases in carbon dioxide levels. And this plant has also developed a brilliant defense for itself, manufacturing urushiol, an organic compound that makes people want to stay away.

It’s this last bit that has earned the plant the name poison ivy and inspired the antipathy of the percentage of the population who are sensitive to the compound, causing what’s known as “urushiol-induced contact dermatitis” — or being really itchy. Those not sensitive to the compound have cause to be on guard as well because sensitivity can increase with exposure. So it’s good to be aware of what the plant looks like and how to prevent spreading its toxin.

Understand that I’m speaking from experience. I’m extremely sensitive to poison ivy. However, I discovered that being mindful of the plant and washing regularly with Tecnu — a skin cleaner designed to prevent poison ivy, poison-oak and poison-sumac reactions — I could mostly live free of worry.

Other soaps may work almost as well, but there’s some evidence to suggest Tecnu is better at removing urushiol from the skin. Regardless of the soap, try to wash with cool water as soon after contact as possible. Cool water is best because it prevents pores from opening up and taking in the toxin. In the past, when I was regularly coming into contact with poison ivy (this was especially bad when I was using a weed-whacker and spraying my skin with bits of who knows what) I would rinse down my arms and neck with cold water and Tecnu during the day. I also kept a bottle of it in the shower for an end of the day wash.

Once it has been washed off, you no longer need to worry about moving the urushiol around your body by itching. Even if you have a rash from coming into contact with it, this won’t spread. These outbreaks can last up to 14 days and can be treated with Calamine lotion, Ivarest or similar products.

In terms of identifying poison ivy, following the “leaves of three — let it be” method is usually best. However, there are other plants, notably box-elder seedlings and young boston ivy sprouts, that look a lot like poison ivy. Virginia creeper is also commonly mistaken for the plant because it grows in similar situations, but it has five leaves and is quite harmless.

The plant’s most distinguishing characteristic is the reddish bit of stalk at the base of the bottom two leaflets. These leaflets are often toothed as well, although again, the plant is a bit of a shape shifter. Older vines will have hairy aerial-roots all over them.

Gardeners often encounter poison ivy in wild or woody areas. Of course, you should take great care in removing it, wearing gloves and long sleeves and then promptly washing these and cleaning off any tools with rubbing alcohol. One good method for removing plants is to pull them up using a garbage bag with your hand inserted in it. The bag can then be flipped around so that the plant is contained and you haven’t made any contact with it directly. Long-handled tools like stirrup hoes can also be useful for removing small plants while keeping your distance.

Poison ivy is generally resistant to herbicides, although applying borax to leaves is one organic method that is said to be effective. There are also certain contractors who specialize in removing the plant.

Finally, dispose of dead plants in the garbage. The rash-inducing compounds can remain viable for at least a year after the plant has died. Under no circumstances should you burn the waste as this can cause serious health problems if the smoke is inhaled.

By following the above instructions you should be able to manage any poison ivy that pops up in your yard without getting too itchy. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s perhaps that the presence of the plant is a reminder to slow down and take stock of what’s going on around us. You may thank yourself for this later.

Brian Allnutt is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at