By Pamela Doan
It seems like most of my conversations lately involve either ticks or poison ivy. They both seem to be prolific this spring. They have a lot in common, too. Both are unwanted, can cause major lingering health problems and can be difficult to manage in the home landscape.
Personally, I’ve had both Lyme disease and a maddening rash from poison ivy in the past few years, and yes, it is horrible and makes you want to stay indoors or cover up in a hazmat suit while gardening. Since neither choice is viable, here are some tips for managing poison ivy.
Beware of easy fixes. In our rush to find a solution that’s simple and effective, dousing the lawn with pesticides and herbicides might seem like the best choice, but there’s more to consider.
During my master gardener training, I learned two things about poison ivy that made me both awestruck by it and afraid for the future. First, in tests conducted by Cornell University researchers, poison ivy was one of the plants that loved an atmosphere with higher carbon levels. That means as carbon continues to build up around our planet, poison ivy is going to thrive. It can grow bigger and faster and spread aggressively. Very bad news!
The second thing that terrified me was discovering that the thick, furry vines I noticed twining around tree trunks was poison ivy. The vine can reach the top of a tree, and any contact with it, even in winter, can cause the rash. Even if the vine is dead, the oil that causes irritation, urushiol, is still active for years.
Managing poison ivy in the yard begins with being able to identify it. I learned a rhyme as a child that has stuck with me, and we probably all know it: “Leaves of three, let it be.” Young plants like wild raspberry in the spring can look similar. Poison ivy also likes to grow around other vines like the native Virginia creeper and can hide effectively among other weeds, too.
Poison ivy has a woody stem, and the leaves can look glossy. The leaves are smooth-edged and can be green in summer and reddish purple in the spring and fall. It never has thorns. The vine looks fuzzy. In our area, poison ivy can be a shrub, vine or ground cover.
Be vigilant about locating poison ivy in the spring when it first begins growing. Taking care of a 2-inch plant is a lot easier than trying to wrangle a vine off a fence or tree. Hand-pulling it at this stage is a good option. Take care to pull it out by the root; if you don’t get it all, it will come right back. Cutting it back won’t kill it, and then you’ll be faced with the challenge of getting the oil off lawnmower blades or a weed whacker. Whatever touches the plant can have urushiol on it, and anything it comes in contact with can be affected.
Wipe down tools that touch the plant — a shovel, trowel, blades — with water and alcohol, being careful not to touch it with exposed skin. I read a tip in a magazine to wear plastic bags over thick rubber gloves. The bags that newspapers are delivered in when it’s raining work well for this. The gloves protect your skin in case the bag tears, and the bag can be thrown directly in the trash afterward.
For large patches of poison ivy that are more challenging to manage, you could consider hiring a professional to take care of it for a fee. Some companies will dig it out and dispose of it and others will use herbicides. Roundup is the commercial name of glyphosate, a chemical made by Monsanto that is highly controversial and widely used. It can be purchased at most landscape centers and is a systemic, nondiscriminating herbicide.
Sprayed on the leaves of any plant or tree, Roundup will kill. If you are trying to hit the poison ivy and accidentally spray the lilac bush, both will die, so it has consequences. Applied according to the directions, however, it can be used safely on a small scale in the yard. Applied incorrectly and used heavily, it can run off into waterways and soak into soil, and the World Health Organization has raised concerns about its carcinogenic properties for humans. Be very cautious about using it and consider it a last resort for controlling any unwanted plants, not just poison ivy.
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