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How to Avoid Poison Ivy,
the Plague of Summer Fun

Leaves of Three, Don't Touch Me

This past weekend, friends and I took a simply wonderful garden tour here in and around Croton on Hudson, a small village in Westchester County. The tour was a fund-raising benefit for the Croton Arboretum. Sunday was a perfect summer day; the sun shone brightly and it wasn’t at all humid. We spent our time outdoors in total comfort! The gardens were all lovely and poison ivy free, no doubt due to the tenacity of the gardeners in fighting back, but such was not the case along the sides of the country roads where we parked the car.

Imagine my surprise when I cautioned my companions to avoid the toxic weed nearby and found that they did not know how to recognize it despite themselves having had a couple of very unpleasant bouts with its nasty rash. Perhaps having grown up on a farm and having lost my innocence regarding this very pretty poison years ago, I am hyper-alert to its presence and always watch what I brush up against in woodsy settings and even cultivated hedge rows. Birds have no trouble eating the poison ivy berries and so propagate the weed everywhere they can fly.

There is an old rhyme that goes, “Leaves of three, don’t touch me.” Take a look at the watercolor illustration. Each poison ivy leaf is made of separate parts called leaflets. At the end of the stalk there is one leaflet and below are another two opposite each other. This is referred to as trifoliate. I like the description of these lower leaves as being shaped like mittens, with a lobe on one side. However, the leaves are sometimes quite pointed and may have a toothed or rather smooth edge. Often the leaves are a bit shiny, never furry, but their color can vary according to the time of year. At every time of the year they are an irritant to the 80% of people who are allergic. (The remaining 20% can become allergic at any moment so one should always be cautious.) The pest can grow as a bush or a vine, so don’t lean against a tree without looking very carefully at what’s growing up its trunk!

If you’re a gardener, then be sure to wear protective clothing around the weed and afterwards be sure to wash your outfit with a strong soap and lots of hot water. If you think that you have come in contact with poison ivy, wash it off as quickly as possible with one of the product made especially for this (Tecnu or Zanfel for instance). Do NOT use a Weedwacker on poison ivy as the little bits will fly about and spread the urushiol oil, the source of the irritant, everywhere! And NEVER, EVER burn it. Inhalation of the smoke and fumes will likely lead to hospitalization!

A little bit more bad news about urushiol;  it is found in poison oak, poison sumac and the skin of mangoes! Now you know what to avoid to enjoy a plague-free summer.

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