Friday, September 26, 2014

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Poison ivy -- a plant everyone should know

Here is a photo of one variation of poison ivy. The old adage is "leaves of
three, let it be." (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER)
I’ve led dozen of nature hikes through the years and invariably, on each and every one of them, one of the first questions posed to me was: “What does poison ivy look like?”

I’ve always been amazed at how many people are unfamiliar with the plant. I find it odd given that the plant is so bothersome and has sent many a person to the doctor or ER. To me, especially in rural Niagara County, it should be one of those dangers you educate your kids about at an early age – like crossing the road and talking to strangers.

So, here’s a primer about poison ivy...

Where to find it

Sadly, poison ivy is one of the more abundant plants in Eastern Niagara County’s woodlands.

Poison ivy grows best in direct sun, so it can be found in waste areas (the edges of parking lots, roads, railroad corridors), thickets, open woods, orchards and lawns. Young forests without a major canopy will be especially riddled with it.

In many spots, it can blanket forest floors and hiking trails, which is why I always tell hikers to wear pants, not shorts, in Niagara’s wilds. Compare that to a place like Allegany County where in many forests at slightly higher elevations (say, 1,200 feet. plus) you will never find a single poison ivy plant.


Poison ivy grows in two different ways.

A plant often confused with poison ivy is the 
attractive Virgina Creeper.
It can be a ground-based plant. A perennial, it will take root and come back the next year. These adult plants can then send runners, where their root system expands and more plants pop out in the adjacent area, hence the really dense growth that can occur.

Poison ivy will also climb up trees and create some pretty impressive vines. Whereas wild grapes might have a shaggy-barked vine that is freely hanging from limbs, poison ivy holds tight to trunks and numerous small but strong hairs, almost like stems, emanate from the whole length of the vine and grab onto the trunk like fingers.

Poison ivy has three leaflets, each two- to four-inches long with the middle one having a slightly longer stalk than the outer two. The plants are green and will remain so till late-September or early-October when they start to turn red like other forest dwellers (some folks wrongly believe that poison ivy can be told by red-green leaves all year).

The leaves can be slightly variable in shape...some can be smooth-edged, some can have a few teeth or deep lobes. Pretty vague description, eh?

What I always tell folks to do is notice the two outside leaves. On many ivy plants, one or both will have one or two large teeth on the outside edge. Once you see that, you know its poison ivy and you can look at the neighboring ivy plants in that colony to understand their slight variations.

Before killing what you think is poison ivy, be such to really familiarize yourself with it. It should not be confused with other three-leafed plants (like wild strawberry, jack in the pulpit, and trillium) or other vines (like the five- or six-leafed Virginia creeper).

What it does

Poison ivy has an oil within it called urushiol which is released when the stems, vines, or leaves are broken or bruised.

Eighty to 90 percent of people are susceptible to urushiol and it causes an allergic reaction — more properly known as contact dermatitis -- which presents itself as a rash with hard bumps or blisters, usually within 2 or 3 days of the initial contact.

Each person develops the symptoms differently. Some will rarely break out and may have only one itchy bump, while others may experience numerous bothersome boils.

That’s bad enough, but some folks are even more sensitive: my gym teacher in elementary school missed work for quite a while as he had been burning brush and the sooty smoke caused uroshiol aggravation in his throat and lungs! How do you scratch that itch?

It should be noted that if you get bumps the day of contact with a variety of plants when you are doing gardening or ranch work, that rash is more likely caused by the hairs of stinging nettles, which present themselves almost immediately. Poison ivy takes a little time. We will discuss nettles in a future installment of this column.

First aid

The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” really rings true with poison ivy. An even better one to follow until you’ve mastered plant identification is “leaves of three, let it be.”

Not all three-leafed plants are dangerous. This is 
If doing yard work or collecting firewood, wear gloves.

If you’ve come in contact with poison ivy, immediately wash your hands to get the oil off. You must use soap and water and if you are really allergic to ivy, use rubbing alcohol to wash your hands. An old remedy is to use juices from jewelweed or touch-me-not (we will also discuss this flower in a future installment).

If you haven’t washed well enough or didn’t know you touched poison ivy and have gotten blisters, apply wet compresses, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream to the skin to reduce itching. You can also take an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to relieve the stress. Some swear by oatmeal baths.

Many people develop so powerful of a reaction they have to seek medical attention and take a steroid prescription.

Despite urban legends to the contrary, poison ivy blisters are not contagious. You will not get a rash from someone else’s rash, you will only get it from the plants and oils themselves.

Hopefully, you are not among those who really get socked by poison ivy. If you are or may be genetically predisposed to be so, take the time to familiarize with poison ivy. If you take a few minutes to do a Google image search of the plant, you can become really familiar with its appearance and maximize your enjoyment of the Niagara Frontier’s wilds.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s had minor poison ivy flare-ups on only five occasions. Even so, you will never see him wearing shorts outdoors – it’s against his religion. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 25 September 2014 East Niagara Post

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