Itchy and scratchy

Poison ivy plant
photo by Cecil Bothwell

If you love green, growing things, it pays to know your neighbors. And in our neck of the woods, one of the most important local residents to meet is poison ivy. Whether she’s living down the road or in your own back yard, rest assured that she’s in the ‘hood.

A nature-loving woman I know likes to tell the story of a romantic interlude from her past. One warm spring night, she and her paramour wandered off to the edge of her flowerbeds to stargaze, settling down to enjoy the celestial display.

Two days later, she realized she had taken away more than fond memories from her evening of contemplating the heavens. A constellation of itchy, burning bumps had appeared on her back, arms and legs.

Poison ivy: What other two words in the English language can elicit such an immediate, itchy response (except, perhaps, “tax audit”)? Anyone who plays in the outdoors or tends a garden will encounter this unobtrusive yet unforgettable vine. And in the case of poison ivy, forewarned is forearmed.

Both poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron) and her cousin poison oak (Rhus toxicarium) secrete oils that contain urushiol, a toxin that produces contact dermatitis — in layman’s terms, a nasty allergic rash.

So it’s best not to get intimate with this pair. In our region, poison ivy is the one to watch out for. Identification is key. The first clue is the three-leafed structure. To distinguish it from other three-leafed plants, look for an extended stem on the center leaf, with two opposing lower leaves connected directly to the stem.

The leaves themselves have an undulating, scalloped edge that sometimes resembles a mitten. But the edge of the leaf is not serrated, or saw- toothed, like the three-leaved plants in the Rubus genus (including wild raspberries and blackberries).

In early spring, poison ivy may have shiny leaves and a reddish hue. The stems may retain some color as the plant matures, but the leaves will soon turn a rather pedestrian green that acts as camouflage. So look for the pattern and shape of the leaves — not their shininess or color.

Leaf size and growth patterns can also vary widely. Poison ivy takes many forms: spreading ground cover, small bushes and hairy, snaking vines that climb up trees.

The entire plant is toxic — leaf, stem and roots. In the case of my astronomer friend, it was too early in the season for the telltale leaves to give her warning; the bare stems were the culprits. Do not touch any hairy vines growing up trees — the hairy stems themselves carry toxic oils as well.

Poison ivy loves to intermingle with other plants, frequently appearing at pathway edges and in cleared fields and building sites. She plays the role of an earth-healing plant, defending her little patch of ground from further human intrusion. She covers Mother Earth’s skin — the topsoil — and allows it to recover and renew itself.

Animals are generally immune to ivy’s irritating oils, although they can carry them on their fur and innocently share them with you. Intrepid children may wander into her midst unawares (until they start to scratch within a day or so).

So if you live or play in an area where poison ivy is abundant, it’s important to know the “poison ivy status” of anyone or anything you snuggle WITH. Always assume the worst and send them to the showers!

Unfortunately, we often tangle with this nemesis in places where we don’t have running water. Fortunately, Mother Earth loves balance and often plants some jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, I. pallida and other similar species), a healing plant ally, alongside poison ivy.

Jewelweed’s plump, juicy stems are bright green and so watery-looking that the whole plant is somewhat translucent. Her leaves are oval, with gently scalloped edges. In summer, she exhibits an exquisite, tubular yellow-orange flower that resembles a golden cornucopia.

Jewelweed is also known as “touch-me-not” because at the slightest jostling, her seedpods will spring open and spray seeds up to four feet in the air, an effect that delights children.

Splitting the succulent stem and rubbing the watery juice onto the skin is an old folk remedy for preventing or minimizing a poison-ivy outbreak. It’s good to keep some jewelweed extract (see sidebar) on hand even in winter when poison ivy is dormant, as one can still meet up with urushiol-oil residue on firewood.

Given poison ivy’s ubiquitous presence, some choose to deal with her by trying to build up immunity to her dubious charms. So many people have benefited from Rhus Tox., a commercial homeopathic preparation made from poison ivy, that it’s sold not only by health-food stores but also by most mainstream pharmacies. Homeopathic preparations are made by repeatedly diluting the physical properties, which is said to increase the energetic properties.

Some brave individuals who have the mettle for a more daring approach opt for meeting the lady herself. Beginning with the first-growth leaves in early spring, these hardy souls harvest (wearing gloves, of course) and swallow a thumbnail-sized piece of leaf. They maintain that repeating this procedure every three weeks builds up their immunity to poison ivy.

Although I do know people who have found this method to be quite effective, I cannot recommend it. It must be utilized with great caution and at your own risk. Many say that this controversial method promotes severe, even fatal, allergic reactions.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the late Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, had an ongoing debate with John M. Kingsbury, author of Poisonous Plants in the U.S. and Canada, over this issue. The debate began with Kingsbury criticizing Gibbons for having shared his success story of eating poison-ivy leaves, even though Gibbons wrote, “It was not a safe or settled scientific practice” (Mother Earth News, May/June 1972).

It has also been suggested that ingesting the milk of animals that have grazed on poison ivy will have the same result. Goats are particularly fond of the misery-provoking plant. Of course, this demands that you know where your goat dines.

But whatever your approach, keep Miss Ivy in mind whenever you commune with nature or don your gardening gloves, and do your best to maintain a respectful distance. Deal with any close encounters as quickly as possible. As my friend learned to her sorrow: Don’t be so caught up in what’s going on above your head that you forget what’s beneath your feet.

[Corinna Wood, director of Red Moon Herbs and the SE Women’s Herbal Conference, teaches at the N.C. School of Holistic Herbalism. Corinna can be reached through or at 669-1310.]

Jewelweed ice cubes

The easiest way to preserve the benefits of jewelweed is by freezing its broth.

Harvest jewelweed plants in midsummer, when they are in their early- to peak-flowering stage. Use the whole top half of the plant, including leaves, stalks and flowers.

Fold the plants into a pot, cover them with water, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid turns dark orange. Strain the liquid, let it cool, and apply it directly to the affected area.

Pour the remainder into ice trays, and set them in the freezer. The next day, remove the ice cubes from the tray and place them in a clearly marked bag. Now you can have a year-round supply of a soothing, cooling jewelweed preparation — FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY!

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