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Identifying & Eradicating Poison Ivy

Updated on December 31, 2011

If we lived in a just and perfect world, poison ivy would have 10-inch thorns and a noxious smell. Alarms would sound as we approached it--or better yet, creepy organ music would fill the air.

Unfortunately, in the real world both Toxicodendron radicans, the common climbing variety, and Toxicodendron rydbergii, the western shrub species, are attractive plants. In fact, if you didn't know Toxicodendron was poison ivy, you might be tempted to snip off bits of it for your fall floral arrangements. (It's at its prettiest in autumn.)

Poison ivy is not only attractive; it's also quite prolific. Once it takes root on your property, it can self-seed rapidly and develop into a potentially dangerous nuisance.

 

Poison Ivy Through the Seasons

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Above, new spring growth on a poison ivy plant  appears red.Although the saying, "Leaves of three, let them be," is usually accurate, poison ivy  leaves sometimes grow in groups of 5, 7, or even 9. Poison ivy blooms are small and whitish.Poison ivy leaves turn red and yellow in autumn. Most mature plants also produce white waxy fruit.Poison ivy berries, which some birds like, are small and yellow-green.Because the roots contain urushiol, poison ivy can cause contact dermatitis in winter, too.
Above, new spring growth on a poison ivy plant  appears red.
Above, new spring growth on a poison ivy plant appears red.
Although the saying, "Leaves of three, let them be," is usually accurate, poison ivy  leaves sometimes grow in groups of 5, 7, or even 9.
Although the saying, "Leaves of three, let them be," is usually accurate, poison ivy leaves sometimes grow in groups of 5, 7, or even 9.
Poison ivy blooms are small and whitish.
Poison ivy blooms are small and whitish.
Poison ivy leaves turn red and yellow in autumn. Most mature plants also produce white waxy fruit.
Poison ivy leaves turn red and yellow in autumn. Most mature plants also produce white waxy fruit.
Poison ivy berries, which some birds like, are small and yellow-green.
Poison ivy berries, which some birds like, are small and yellow-green.
Because the roots contain urushiol, poison ivy can cause contact dermatitis in winter, too.
Because the roots contain urushiol, poison ivy can cause contact dermatitis in winter, too.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

Poison ivy grows on every continent in the world. And it's present in every U.S. state, excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

You'll often find it along streams and rivers. It likes the coast, too. Sometimes, you'll even see it at the beach.

As you can tell from the photos to your right, poison ivy looks different depending upon the season. In spring, its new growth has a rosy hue, and plants may develop small green buds that eventually bloom into tiny, nondescript white flowers. After a time, these turn into greenish yellow berries.

In summer, poison ivy leaves are bright green. In autumn, they turn red. In winter, when the plant becomes dormant, its roots are rust-colored. Like every other part of the plant, they can cause a rash, too.

The saying, "Leaves of 3? Let it be," holds true. But keep in mind that many plants have leaves that grow in clusters of threes.

One of the best ways to distinguish poison ivy from similar looking plants is by the black spots that appear on its stems where its leaves have fallen or been torn away. These spots indicate the presence of urushiol, the oil in poison ivy that causes contact dermatitis.

Poison ivy is often confused with Virginia creeper (above) and boxelder (below).
Poison ivy is often confused with Virginia creeper (above) and boxelder (below).

Poison Ivy Look-Alikes

Poison ivy is easily confused with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a harmless fast-growing vine with five, not three, leaves. It produces purplish fruit in the fall.

Sometimes poison ivy is mistaken for a tree, the benign box elder (Acer negundo) which, like the poison ivy vine, often graces the banks of woodland streams throughout North America.

The Unpleasant Power of Urushiol

Bees like poison ivy blossoms. And in October, many birds will gobble down its pea-sized berries. Hungry deer and goats suffer no ill effects from eating it, and dogs and cats can frolic in it without harm.

Only humans seem to have an adverse reaction to urushiol. In fact, most of us will develop an uncomfortable rash when exposed to only a small amount of it. Even people who don't currently react to poison ivy often develop sensitivity to urushiol over time.

You don't have to touch poison ivy in order to be exposed either. If your pets have been in contact with it and have urushiol on their fur, you can pick it up from them. You can also get urushiol from tools that have been used to cut poison ivy. And if you mow poison ivy, urushiol can "spray" into the air and get you that way!

Because urushiol is so ubiquitous and caustic, it's important that gardeners take precautions before attempting to remove poison ivy from their landscape.

32 Ounces of Prevention

Tecnu Skin Cleanser 32 Ounce
Tecnu Skin Cleanser 32 Ounce

If your skin has come into contact with the oil in poison ivy that causes contact dermatitis, wash with Tecnu. Tecnu is a cleansing agent that effectively removes urushiol from skin. Using it within 4-8 hours of contact will prevent you from breaking into a rash.

 

Safety Precautions

When tackling a poison ivy problem, dress for the occasion. Go for full coverage: socks and shoes, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and disposable rubber gloves.

If your clothes are also disposable, even better. If not, wash them as soon as you're done, being sure to handle them carefully. (You don't want any urushiol that may have gotten onto them to come off onto your skin.) Wipe down your shoes, as well as any tools that you used, with rubbing alcohol.

Clean yourself, too. Take a long, cold shower to remove any oil from your skin. Avoid hot water. It will open your pores, allowing them to absorb the oil--and guaranteeing that you get a great big rash.

Wiping yourself down with rubbing alcohol is another effective way to remove urushiol, so long as you do so promptly. The cleansing agent Tecnu, which is specifically made to rid skin of poison ivy oil, also works.

Aggressive cases of contact dermatitis are dangerous due to the risk of infection. If your symptoms are severe, visit a healthcare professional. Likewise, if cuts or open wounds on your body come into contact with urioshol, causing you to develop a rash, go to the doctor immediately.

Eco-Friendly Options for Eradicating Poison Ivy

Manually removing poison ivy can be an itchy, labor-intensive proposition. The garbage bag method below eliminates the itchy part, but it's hard work. The plastic sheet strategy is a passive method of control that, after the initial labor, requires little or no work.

The Garbage Bag Method

The garbage bag method works well on small poison ivy shrubs and vines. If you're dealing with well-established plants, you may have to repeat this method several times.

First, open the garbage bag and put it over the poison ivy. Then, using a long-handled shovel, begin to dig up the plant. Once the soil is loosened, grab the poison ivy through the garbage bag, pull it free, and maneuver it into the bag. If you do it right, you shouldn't touch the plant at all, just the plastic. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, cover up in the manner described above before you get started--gloves, long sleeves, the works.

Finally, throw the poison ivy-filled bag into the garbage. Don't compost it, and whatever you do, don't burn it. Burning poison ivy releases urushiol into the air. Breathing it in is even worse than having it on your skin and virtually guarantees a trip to the hospital.

The Plastic Sheet Strategy

You can also get rid of poison ivy vines just as you would any other weed: cover them with black plastic. Like all plants, poison ivy needs light and oxygen in order to live, and black plastic sheeting will eliminate both. So that it won't be an eyesore, consider covering the plastic with organic mulch, such as compost, shredded bark, or leaves.

Note: Mowing poison ivy is not advisable. Although repeated brush hogging will eventually kill it, cutting it down with your lawn tractor, push mower, or weedeater will spatter urushiol into the air, which could get into your eyes, mouth, nose, or a cut on your body. Levels of urushiol in poison ivy are at their peak in spring and summer.

For Extreme Cases Only

Ortho Brush-b-gon Poison Ivy Poison Oak, & Brush Killer
Ortho Brush-b-gon Poison Ivy Poison Oak, & Brush Killer

Brush-B-Gone contains the selective synthetic herbicide triclopyr, which will not kill sedges and grasses but does kill woody plants. Apply it to poison ivy in early fall or late summer for best results.

 
Roundup Poison Ivy Plus Tough Brush Killer Concentrate, 32-Ounce
Roundup Poison Ivy Plus Tough Brush Killer Concentrate, 32-Ounce

Roundup contains glyphosate, a non-selective synthetic herbicide. It doesn't remain active in the soil, so once you've cleared away the dead poison ivy, you can replant the area within a few days.

 

Chemical Solutions

Sometimes manual solutions just don't work, particularly if you're plagued by a swarm of poison ivy shrubs or an unholy intermingling of shrubs and vines.

You smother them; they revive. You bag them and grab them, and in a few weeks, they're waving those three leaves (or is it just the middle leaf?) at you once again.

When that happens, you may decide to reach for organic or synthetic herbicide. Whichever type you use, be sure to apply it carefully so that you don't kill or damage nearby plants. To minimize danger to yourself and surrounding plants, add a shield to your sprayer nozzle and cover surrounding plants with plastic sheeting, newspaper, or cardboard. Alternatively, you could snip poison ivy at its base and apply herbicide with a disposable sponge brush directly to the cut.

Organic Herbicides

An application of white vinegar that's 10 to 20 percent acetic acid will kill small poison ivy vines and shrubs. (Common household vinegar is 5 percent acetic acid.) Strong vinegar will also burn you, so please wear protective glasses and clothing when you apply it.

Some people also advocate an organic herbicide comprised of salt, water, and soap.

Synthetic Herbicides

Sometimes, it takes a systemic synthetic killer like glyphosate or triclopyr to bring down a tough patch of poison ivy. As with any herbicide, be extremely careful during application to avoid killing nearby plants. Glyphosate kills woody and nonwoody plants; triclopyr kills everything but grass and sedge.

Follow the directions on the label carefully. Then, after the number of days prescribed, put your protective gear on and remove the dead poison ivy.

Neither herbicide remains active in the soil for long, so you can replant the area within a short time--before a new crop of poison ivy moves in.

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Great information, grandmapearl! Thanks for your comments. Will have to look for jewelweed next time I run into a patch of poison ivy! Take care, Jill

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hey Jill, I just read this article and enjoyed your thorough identification and eradication methods. Very informative and well written as always. Voted Up across the board and pinned.

      For future reference: the old tried and true and clinically proven Jewelweed poultice is highly effective. Jewelweed is almost always found, by the way, growing somewhere nearby in a damp ditch or other moist, shady area. Cut up the stems and boil them until the water turns orange. Strain the mixture, allow to cool and apply liberally to the affected areas 2 to 3 times a day. This was my Grandma's antidote for anything that irritated the skin, including insect bites! People who have used this method are free of the rash and itchy pain within 24 hours! This also works on stinging nettles and poison oak. I know because both my brother-in-law and mother-in-law are highly sensitive to poison ivy and oak, and this worked very well for them. I am thankfully not affected by poison ivy (I once sat in a whole patch of it while playing hide and seek as a kid) or stinging nettles!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks, lauramaryscott! I walked through a patch of poison ivy in the woods this weekend. The path was blocked with a giant fallen tree and a huge bank of berry vines were to the left. The poison ivy on the right looked good in comparison! (Luckily, I had on long pants.) Glad you stopped by! Take care, The Dirt Farmer

    • lauramaryscott profile image

      lauramaryscott 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Your hub on poison ivy is impressive. I plan to share it with friends and family. Thank you.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey cclitgirl! I really feel for your husband, especially now. I have poison ivy! Don't know how I got it--unless it was from the dog, who's been playing in the woods a lot lately. Thanks for commenting & for the votes. Take care, The Dirt Farmer

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      This is a great hub! My husband is really sensitive to poison ivy. Next time he gets it, I'll refer him here. I love that you have organic and regular remedies because I'll always go for the organic options first. :) Many votes.

    • Golfgal profile image

      Golfgal 5 years ago from McKinney, Texas

      hey Dirt Farmer, I just love your teachings. I also wrote on poison ivy experiences. check out my hub about how swimming pool clears it up on infected skin. I was like a zombie at age 12 until I went swimming and clorine dried it up. Thumbs up.

    • profile image

      The Dirt Farmer 6 years ago

      Thanks, Tina. The five-petal hand VA creeper idea is a good one to add. I really love Virginia creeper, too, because of its gorgeous color.

    • Tina Julich profile image

      Tina Julich 6 years ago from Pink

      Great hub! Poison ivy can climb, too. I have seen it climbing up trees and the stem was over 1/2" in diameter. We also have several areas where it grows in more of a shrubby fashion and not very 'vine' like at all. So, it's growth habits are not the only thing that one needs to use to identify it (as you have pointed out,) but once you know what it looks like you'll be able to stay away from it.

      To distinguish it from Virginia Creeper, the Virginia Creeper has 5 petals, so if it looks like a 'hand' it's not poison ivy.

      Thanks for all the information.

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 6 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Dirt Farmer. Oh Yes, so many stories, so little time....

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      Awesome! Glad you stopped in to read. I read your twin heatstroke story this morning. Incredible--and you probably have lots more!

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 6 years ago from Minnesota

      So glad you shared this with us. We have a bunch of poison ivy around here as we live kind of back in the woods. Most of the poison ivy is behind the house in the brush and woods, so no huge issues. I am so glad to know what to look for now. Thanks:) Lots of buttons pushed here.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      I know what you mean, BrightMeadow. I got it in late February while clearing brush. Didn't even see it! Good luck with the battle.

    • BrightMeadow profile image

      BrightMeadow 6 years ago from a room of one's own

      I am totally bookmarking this one. I can't go into my yard without getting a rash. I'm seriously considering Napalm. Thankyou for this hub.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      Yep, poison ivy is tough. For its macho perennial roots, a little salt water is probably like a day at the beach! It's definitely the Chuck Norris of weeds.

    • profile image

      Esmeowl12 6 years ago

      Thanks for the great tips. I've also tried pouring salt water on the plants. They do die out but come right back later. Sigh.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      Yes, we tried the honey thing with the kids and then stopped. Supposedly, the honey contains small amounts of allergen and can build up your immunity over time. Makes sense, huh? Unfortunately, I bought the "local" honey at a nearby Amish farm, thinking that it was from the area. Turns out, the family "imported" it from another Amish community in PA. It wasn't local at all! Haven't tried it since, but we ought to.

    • profile image

      Gigi Thibodeau 6 years ago

      I think he has some permanent scarring on his legs, poor guy. I've never had a reaction to poison ivy myself, but since I seem to be developing more allergies every year (ugh!), I know I could have a reaction at any time. I feel like I should memorize your hub so I'll always know how to spot it! :)

      Speaking of allergies, have you written any hubs about hay fever and other seasonal allergies? I'm always looking for natural remedies. Several people told me to try eating raw, local honey, so I've begun having a spoonful every day. I'm wondering if I'm crazy to be trying this or if it might help. Any thoughts?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      You're welcome, Gigi. Thanks for stopping by. Hope your friend survived unscarred. While hiking Sat., we actually passed through an area posted as dangerous for poison ivy. Wish all poison ivy had a warning label!

    • profile image

      Gigi Thibodeau 6 years ago

      This is such an important article! I will definitely be sharing this with a few people I know. One of my best friends had just a horrible reaction to poison ivy this past year--the worst I've ever seen. He ended up on some serious medication to deal with it, and he was in a lot of pain. Thanks for such an informative and useful hub!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      You're welcome. Hope you're rash-free this summer! (Was that too personal?)

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

      Oh Thank you Thank YOU THANK YOU! There is so much debate about exactly what a poison ivy plant looks like here in the city, but we have it everywhere and I'm allergic. I'm so pleased to have this vital information on spotting and eradicating poison ivy. I will be sharing this today! Thanks :) Katie