The Bane of the Garden

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

Toxicodendron radicans is an attractive native vine, an important food for birds, and it displays great fall color. Were it not for its oily resin (called urushiol), it would be an ornament in any garden. I am referring, of course, to poison ivy, the most common cause of rashes in America. A month ago, I made the mistake – and I did this willingly – of wading into a large patch of it.

And it was just a week ago today that I finally was able to put out of my mind the thought of self-amputation of my left leg at the knee. For the three weeks before that, I was, to put it delicately, in agony.

Poison ivy is, of course, to be avoided. It’s a simple rule, really: stay away from poison ivy and you will never look like a bug-eyed idiot at a party, resisting the urge to scratch your arms or legs into temporary submission. I leapt into that poison ivy because my wife asked me to clean out some that was encroaching onto some prized plants. After patently ignoring her request for several weeks, I spontaneously did it one hot afternoon. Maybe it was the heat.

If you are heading out to do battle with a major infestation, dress for battle. A long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into socks, a hat and gloves. I did not follow this advice. Instead, I wore shorts, shoes, and a tee shirt, with plastic bags wrapped around my hands. In hindsight, I was foolhardy. At the time, I was avoiding being ‘too warm’.

Poison Ivy exampleTools for removing poison ivy include shovels, trowels, hoes, clippers and heavy duty plastic bags. Of this arsenal, I remembered only the plastic trash bags. Experts say that as you remove poison ivy, place it immediately in the bags. Even dead, you can be exposed to the oily resin that causes the rash. Cutting off a vine headed up a tree is only the first step, next you need to remove it from the tree so the dead leaves do not become a future source of contamination. This does not go in the composter. It goes straight to the trash. And never burn poison ivy—if inhaled, the fumes can cause a serious respiratory reaction. I did, at least, bag the stuff and took it straight to the dump.

You can also use an herbicide such as Roundup. We have a bottle of concentrate in our garage. Why didn’t I use it? Stupidity. If you’re not keen to spray herbicides, you can use an old paint brush to simply paint the poison ivy leaves with the Roundup. I have lots of old paint brushes. The thought never crossed my mind.

Poison Ivy exampleWhen you finished pulling out poison ivy, immediately remove the clothes you’ve been wearing and place them in a washer. You should clean yourself thoroughly, washing any exposed areas with cool water and dish or laundry detergent (better than hand soap at removing oil and washing it away). The faster you wash off any contamination, the less likely you are to suffer the rash.

I swear on a stack of seed catalogs that I did every one of those things. Three days later, I saw the first signs of a rash. A day later, the rash ran in multiple bands the length of my leg.

Over-the-counter cortisone and antihistamines are recommended for mild cases of poison ivy. Severe cases may merit a trip to the doctor. I discovered that calamine lotion now goes by the name of ‘anti-itch lotion’ and is no longer pink It works, up to a point. The Wall Street Journal, which fortunately dispenses far better financial information than it does medical advice, suggests that buttermilk and soaking in a bathtub with a dozen teabags can help. I elected not to try either home remedy.

Finally don’t forget to clean the tools you used. Wash them with a household cleaner designed to remove oil so you don’t pick it up the next time you head out to garden. Having not bothered to use tools, I didn’t need this particular piece of advice, but I washed them thoroughly anyway.

You can never be too careful with poison ivy.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through