How to Clear Poison Ivy

Leaves of three, let them be!
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­Poison ivy is the dreaded scourge of many a summer camper, hiker and even Batman. Once it makes contact with sensitive skin, a telltale blistery rash can wreak havoc on the body. Along with its relatives, poison oak and poison sumac, the plant grows in every state in the continental United States and affects up to 85 percent of those who cross its path [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Before European settlement, Native Americans knew to beware poison ivy's wrath. In fact, Capt. John Smith noted its effects, making poison ivy the first allergic disease recognized in the New World [source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. Today, poison ivy may be growing more powerful due to the rise of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. A 2006 study published by the National Academy of Sciences reported that heightened levels of carbon in the air increase the amount of the potent form of poison ivy's active chemical, urushiol, by 5 percent [source: Milius].


Urushiol is an oil found inside poison ivy plants. It escapes easily through tiny tears or holes in the leaves or stems. From there, the oil­ can reach your skin by direct contact or rubbing off on pet fur, clothing or tools. Unless you wash the exposed skin within a few minutes, you'll experience an allergic reaction within 12 to 48 hours. In addition to acting quickly, the chemical also can remain active -- and able to incite a miserable rash -- for years. Say you walk through a patch of poison ivy and get urushiol all over your jacket; you could catch poison ivy from that unwashed jacket a year later [source: Stehlin].

­Many children learn the rhyme "leaves of three, let ­it be" to teach them how to spot poison ivy in the wild. But completely avoiding the plant while tramping around outdoors can be as difficult as resisting the urge to scratch its tingling itch. It may be entwined in other plants, camouflaged by brush or you may simply not be watching out for it until it's too late. Perhaps even more disconcerting, eradicat­ing poison ivy from your property requires getting a little up close and personal with the three-leafed nuisance.


Eliminating Poison Ivy Safely

Take extra caution when removing poison ivy from your yard.
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­Recognizing poison ivy doesn't take a botany degree. Its scalloped leaves grow in clusters of three, and in the spring and summer, its coloring is a vivid green. Brown, furry vines extending from poison ivy plants may also snake their way around tree trunks, hugging them tightly. Urushiol levels in the plants peak during the warm months when you have the greatest likelihood of contracting it. After the plants turn red in the fall, the ivy develops white winter berries. And even if a poison ivy plant appears dead in the cold, the urushiol could still be active, which means you should avoid touching it.

Birds may eat poison ivy berries unharmed -- and spread the plant onto your property [source: Sevier]. Then, you may notice poison ivy patches dotted around your yard when spring rolls around. If you don't remove the plants, you'll have to continually dodge them and risk your outdoor pets passing along to you the urushiol that's been absorbed by their fur.


The methods and potions for clearing out poison ivy plants aren't much different than those for other bothersome weeds. You can pull them up or fight poison with poison. Smothering the plants with plastic or a thick layer of wood chips can also block out sunlight and starve the poison ivy to death [source: Suellen].

For the braver set, you can strap on a hazmat suit and yank the plants out of the ground. Granted, you won't need that much bodily protection when handling poison ivy, but you want to cover your skin fully. Wear socks, shoes, pants, long sleeves, gloves and goggles or glasses. You may want to also tape your pants to your socks and sleeves to your gloves [source: Cook]. Poison ivy plants have deep roots, so you may need to dig them up to remove them entirely. If you leave healthy root systems in the ground, they'll sprout again. Bag the plants securely and put them with your household trash -- not a compost bin or any open areas where they could proliferate. Afterward, wash your clothes, shoes and any tools used immediately.

For those uncomfortable with handling poison ivy, some herbicides can kill it. Those containing []glyphosate and triclopyr can accomplish the task. However, going the herbicidal route can be tricky since it may also slay surrounding desirable plants in the process. Now you can buy specialized herbicides that are specially formulated to target poison ivy and spare other plants. If you're worried about spraying near bushes or flowers, you also could wipe the poison ivy down with the herbicide to spare neighboring foliage [source: Stehlin]. When dealing with poison ivy vines, you need to sever the vine near the ground and apply herbicide there.

Above all, the one thing you should never do to destroy poison ivy patches is set them on fire. Burning the plants releases urushiol into the air, and you could inhale it, leading to an internal infection. Poison ivy smoke can be especially problematic for firefighters when extinguishing blazes in wooded areas.

If you're dealing with a widespread poison ivy population in your backyard, you may want to call professionals for help. Lawn and garden services might be able to tackle the outbreak or give you tips on removing it safely. Just remember that when dealing with poison ivy, always assume the urushiol oil is active and protect yourself accordingly. If you don't, be prepared for the maddening itch and grisly rash to pay your skin a visit.


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More Great Links

  • Cook, Roger. "How to Clear Poison Ivy." This Old House. (Dec. 10, 2008),,1630924,00.html
  • Milius, Susan. "Pumped-up Poison Ivy." Science News. June 3, 2007. (Dec. 10, 2008)
  • "Poison Ivy Allergy." National Institute of A­llergy and Infectious Disease. August 1999.
  • Sevier, Vija. "Herbicides can rid gardens of unwanted poison ivy." McClatchy-Tribune Business News. May 31, 2008.
  • Stehlin, Isadora A. "Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Its Cousins." FDA Consumer magazine. Food & Drug Administration. September 1996. (Dec. 10, 2008)
  • Suellen, May. "America's Least Wanted (Plant)." Organic Gardening. August/September 2005.