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Poison ivy

Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com
Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com

It was out there hiding under the lilac bushes on the south fence line of my property.

I moved carefully through the bushes, took aim, and gently squeezed the trigger. Although I hate to use chemical, I shot several times in rapid succession- blasting the poison ivy plants with 2-4-D.

For many years I have trying to eradicate this noxious weed from my yard. It is a difficult task because the birds spread the seeds and many new shoots come up from the rhizomes roots of the parent plant.

Eighty-five percent of the population is allergic to poison ivy, including me. The sap contains a chemical called “urushail”. It causes a skin rash of little blisters that itch.

Poison ivy is usually found along the edge of woods and it is one of the first plants to grow on disturbed ground. It can also be found in town. A very large poison ivy vine is growing on a hackberry tree a half block from the American Legion Hall on First Avenue near downtown Perry.

This noxious plant can be found in three forms. It grows as a vine on fences and trees, as low ground cover, and as a small shrub. Each form has three leaflets growing on a long reddish stem. The old saying “Leaves of three- let it be” is a good rule to follow. The Virginia creeper vine, often mistaken for poison ivy, has five leaves on its stem. The box elder tree has leaflets of three and five, is often mistaken for poison ivy.

In the fall the poison ivy leaves turn red and have small white berries that stay on the plant all winter. Birds can eat the berries without any problems. However, every part of the plant can cause skin irritation to humans at all times of the year. Even smoke from the burning plants can cause the rash.

If a person does come in contact with the plant the exposed area should be washed with soap and water as soon as possible. Also, washing the area with alcohol removes the irritating sap. I have read in several books that rubbing the leaves of jewelweed on the exposed area will neutralize the poison ivy sap.

According to Sylvan Runkel, Iowa’s famous ethno-botanist, the Miskwaki Indians had a medicinal use for poison ivy. They would “pound the fresh roots into a pulp and apply it as a poultice to an open swollen wound. More recent medicine men report that the benefits are not worth the risk.”

Poison oak does not grow in Iowa, it is found on the west coast of the United States. The leaves of poison oak are similar to poison ivy. What people in central Iowa call poison oak is the shrubby or small tree form of poison ivy.

There have been reports of poison sumac found in northeastern Iowa, but it is very rare. It grows in swampy or bog conditions that have acidic waters. The sumac that grows in our area is not harmful. May Iowans have not heard about another plant that causes a skin rash, cow parsnip, a common roadside weed. This plant grows up to five feet tall and has clusters of yellow yellow flowers that form a large head. The sap of wild parsnip causes a severe burning reaction on skin that I think is more irritating than poison ivy. After the blisters subside the skin remains a reddish-brown color for several months. Before going out hiking, camping, or fishing this summer make sure every member of the family knows how to identify poison ivy and cow parsnip. There are many over the counter medicines that can be used to treat the rash. However, being able to recognize these plants and avoiding them is the best prevention of an uncomfortable rash.

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