Don’t say you weren’t warned. It’s May, and poison ivy is rarin’ to get you - or so it seems for those of us who have learned the hard way. This beautiful vine has an unbelievably effective way of defending itself. It attracts the innocent with its rich green color, its artistic way of draping itself around trees and stones or brick walls. It’s hard to resist transplanting it to some rock garden or a stone fence where something green will fit right in. Some old-timers claimed that to eat a few ivy leaves about this time of year - or earlier - gives a kind of immunity from the vine’s clear, sticky oil. I don’t accept that! I just ask, "What’s to keep it from causing trouble all the way down?"
Twice in my lifetime I’ve had terrible rashes caused by poison ivy; the first time was at age 13, and the second was at age 35! I’ve occasionally had small, itchy patches that were gone before I decided what caused them. The first bad time was after I spent a morning picking wild blackberries - before I memorized this rhyme: "Leaves three? Turn and flee!"
I’ve picked my weight in blackberries without getting poison ivy. The most remarkable thing is that I have hiked a lot in the woods with four grandsons, and not one of those four has had poison ivy rash. However, I am concerned about girls in short shorts because I once saw a serious case: a college girl who had straddled a low fence in shorts. She walked spraddle-legged for at least 10 days. Another student’s arms were so badly affected that she had to rest both of them on a bed pillow covered with a towel during her classes.
My ivy rash at age 35 covered about a sixth of my body and lasted about two weeks. During that time, we made a trip with friends: The retired dermatologist said, "It’s hard to beat the old-time moist baking soda applications."
The March issue of Missouri Conservationist magazine had an article about "Missouri’s Most Irritating Plant" by John D. Miller. Miller warns dog owners, "If you suspect your dog has been running through poison ivy, avoid the dog."
There are products on the market that form barriers against the oil. Long ago, I used "liquid glove," which garage men and painters used; it protected me, and it washed off readily.
When my son-in-law helped my brother cut up and remove a medium-size tree that was crowding my brother’s driveway, he asked, "What did you do about the poison ivy?"
"What poison ivy?" my brother asked. For about 20 years he had watched that tree; the ivy vine turned to beautiful green in spring and to flaming orange-red in autumn, but he wasn’t bothered by its "leaves three." That same day, his helper was suffering with a large, painful patch of poison ivy rash.
Neither man had ever encountered ivy’s rash, and one was extremely sensitive to it. They did not know that the poison was on their clothing or their tools and could remain a threat for a year or more unless washed with strong soap.
If you pull up ivy, roots and all, mark the ivy spot with a warning sign. Don’t burn the vines: The oil can be carried by the soot and dust in the smoke and can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Remove all vines from firewood. Our son had a painful rash around Christmas that his doctor recognized as ivy poisoning.
Leaves five, let it thrive; leaves three, turn and flee.