by Corinna Wood
first published in the Mountain Xpress, June 14 2006
For those of us who love green, growing things, it pays to know your neighbors. And in our area, one of the most important wild plants to recognize is Poison Ivy. Whether she’s moved in down the road or right in your own backyard, rest assured, she’s out there.
A nature-loving woman I know likes to tell the story of a romantic interlude from her past. She and her paramour had wandered off one night to the edge of her flowerbeds to enjoy some stargazing. It was a warm night in early spring and they settled down to appreciate the celestial display. Two days later, however, she realized that she had taken away more than fond memories from her evening of contemplating the heavens. A constellation of itchy, burning bumps had appeared across her back, arms and legs.
Yes – Poison Ivy. What two words in the English language can elicit such an immediate, itchy response (except, perhaps, tax audit)? Anyone who plays in the outdoors, or tends a garden, will, sooner or later, encounter this unobtrusive, yet unforgettable vine. So in the case of Poison Ivy, forewarned is forearmed.
Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron), and her cousin, Poison Oak (Rhus toxicarium) both secrete oils that contain urushiol, a toxin that produces contact dermatitis – in lay terms, a nasty, allergic rash. So it’s best not to become intimate with this lady. In our region, Poison Ivy is the one to be on the lookout for. Identification is key. The first clue is the three-leafed structure. To further distinguish it from other three-leaved plants, look for an extended stem on the center leaf, while the two opposing lower leaves connect directly to the stem. The leaves themselves have an undulating, scalloped edge that sometimes resembles a mitten. But the edge of the leaf is not serrated, or saw-toothed, like the three-leaved plants in the Rubus genus (including wild raspberries and blackberries).
In early spring, Poison Ivy may have shiny leaves and a reddish hue. But although the stems may retain some color as the plant matures, the leaves will soon turn a rather pedestrian green shade that acts as camouflage among the surrounding vegetation. So look for the pattern and shape of the leaves—not its shininess or color. The size of the leaves and growth patterns can also vary widely. She takes many forms – a spreading ground cover, a small bush or a hairy, snaking vine that climbs up trees.
The entire plant is toxic – leaves, stems and roots. In the case of my astronomer friend, it was too early in the season for the telltale leaves to give her warning. The bare stems were the culprits. Also, do not touch any hairy vines growing up trees—the hairy stems themselves carry the toxic oils as well.
Poison Ivy loves to intermingle with other plants and usually appears in areas that have been disturbed by human intervention, frequently at the edges of pathways, cleared fields and building sites. In this way, she actually has a role in the ecosystem as an earth-healing plant, defending her little patch of ground from further human intrusion. She covers Mother Earth’s skin – the topsoil – allowing it to recover and renew itself.
Animals are generally immune to her irritating oils, although they can carry them on their fur and innocently share them with you. Intrepid children may wander into her midst unawares (until they start to scratch within a day or so).
So, if you live or play in an area where Poison Ivy is abundant, it’s important to know the “Poison Ivy status” of anyone or anything you may snuggle. Always assume the worst and send them off to the showers!
Unfortunately, we often tangle with this nemesis in places where we are without the benefit of running water.
Fortunately, Mother Earth loves balance and often offers some Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, I. pallida, and other similar species), a healing plant ally, near stands of Poison Ivy. Jewelweed’s plump, juicy stems are bright green, and so watery-looking that the whole plant is somewhat translucent. Her leaves are oval, with a gently scalloped edge and in summer she exhibits an exquisite, tubular yellow-orange flower, which resembles a golden cornucopia. Jewelweed is also known as ‘Touch-me-not” because at the slightest jostling her seed pods will spring open and spray seeds up to four feet in the air, an effect that delights children.
It’s good to keep some Jewelweed extraction on hand even in winter when Poison Ivy is dormant, but one can still meet up with urushiol oil residue on firewood.Splitting the succulent stem and rubbing the watery juice onto the skin is an old folk remedy to prevent or minimize an outbreak of Poison Ivy. Take a good supply home with you as well, since Jewelweed is also useful for treating and reducing the severity of the irritation and inflammation should a rash develop.
Jewelweed Ice Cubes
The medicinal properties of Jewelweed extract best into a water-based solution, so the easiest way to preserve the benefits of this plant is by freezing the Jewelweed broth.
- Harvest Jewelweed plants in midsummer, when they are in their early to peak flowering stage. Use the whole top half of the plant, including leaves, stalks, and flowers.
- Fold the stalks with leaves and flowers into a pot, cover them with water and simmer for approximately 20 minutes, until the liquid turns dark orange.
- Strain the liquid, and apply the broth directly to the affected area
- Pour the remainder of the liquid into ice trays, and set them in the freezer.
- The next day, remove the ice cubes from the tray, place in a clearly marked bag. Rest assured that you have a soothing, cooling Jewelweed preparation for topical use on hand year-round!
Given Poison Ivy’s ubiquitous presence, you may choose to deal with her by building up some immunity to her “charms.” So many people have benefited from Rhus Tox, a commercial homeopathic preparation, that it is available not only in health food stores, but also most mainstream pharmacies today. Homeopathic preparations are made by repeatedly diluting the physical properties, which is said to increase the energetic properties.
Some brave individuals, who have the mettle for a more daring approach, go to the lady herself – engaging the energy directly. Beginning with the tiny, first growth leaves in the early spring, they harvest and swallow a thumbnail sized piece of leaf (wearing gloves, of course). They say that repeating this procedure every 3 weeks builds up their immunity to the misery of Poison Ivy.
Although I do know people who have found this method to be quite effective, I cannot recommend it. It must be utilized with great caution and at your own risk. Many say that this controversial method risks severe, even fatal, allergic reactions.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the late Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, had an ongoing debate with Kingsbury, author of Poisonous Plants in the U.S. and Canada, over this very issue. The debate began with Kingsbury criticizing Gibbons for sharing his own success story of eating poison ivy leaves, although Gibbons wrote clearly that “it was not a safe or settled scientific practice” (see Mother Earth News, issue # 15, May/June 1972).
It has also been suggested that ingesting the milk of animals that have grazed on Poison Ivy will have the same result. Goats are particularly fond of her. Of course this demands that you know your goat and where it dines.
Awareness is the key to co-existing with Miss Ivy. Bear her in mind whenever you commune with nature or don your gardening gloves and maintain a respectful distance. Deal with any close encounters as quickly as possible. As my friend learned: don’t be so caught up in what’s going on over your head that you forget what’s under your feet.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.