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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Poison ivy: How to get rid of it while staying safe

Poison ivy can show up in different colors

Poison ivy can show up in different colors -- even different leaf shapes. Photo Credit: poison-ivy.org

DEAR JESSICA: Two years ago, I saw a plant I thought might be poison ivy and brought a photo to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, which confirmed my suspicion. It was fall, and we were told that when the leaves of the plant started turning color we should treat it with a specific product intended to kill poison ivy. We did so and it did not work. We repeated the treatment last year. We still have poison ivy, even more than before. How do we get rid of it? We hear of it costing thousands of dollars to get rid of, and we are of limited means. We don’t know whom to call or how to find out whom to call — or if there is something else we can do. We don’t walk in the backyard beyond a small paved area, and haven’t done much yard work because of it. In our concern over what to do, we are starting to see poison ivy everywhere we look on our property — even when there is none.

— Mary Johnson, East Meadow

DEAR MARY: Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a nasty vining plant that contains oils called urushiol, which can cause an itchy, blistering dermatitis to those unfortunate enough to brush up against it. The urushiols remain a threat year-round, even on dormant plants that have lost their leaves, and can be transmitted to humans via gardening tools, clothing and pets. You can even contract a rash from unwashed clothing as long as a year or two after contact. Dead plants contain and can spread the toxin as well.

Poison ivy grows on a vine just under the soil surface and can climb as high as 30 feet up trees and walls and along fences, attaching itself via aerial roots.

The first step in avoiding the plant is being able to identify it properly. You’ve done that by consulting with experts. I’ve included photos here for the benefit of others, as identification can be a bit tricky. (I once mistook a raspberry bush for poison ivy and pulled it up before realizing the error.)

Notice the leaves are made up of three leaflets apiece (hence, the childhood rhyme: “Leaves of three, let it be”). Still, even though the leaves are always composed of three leaflets, their shapes can vary and their edges can be smooth, lobed or toothed.

The most effective means of removing poison ivy is to pull it up by its roots. This is best done in March, after the freeze-thaw cycles of winter have softened the ground, but you can get a head start now, after a rainfall.

Take care to avoid contact with any tools or clothing used during the job. Long sleeves, pants, gloves and goggles should be worn, and all clothing carefully removed afterward, so as not to allow it to come into contact with skin or other surfaces. Don’t touch anything, especially your face, during the process. Act as if you’re touching poison, because you sort of are.

Next, dig up any roots that remain (if you’ve had enough by now, this can be done the next day). You’ll notice the plants send out running roots that grow horizontally under the soil surface. Remove as many as possible.

When you’re done, don’t touch the door, get a glass of water or open the washing machine by yourself. Strip down and get clothing and gloves directly into the washer, then get yourself into the shower. (Whoever handled your clothing should shower immediately, as well.) Remember also to clean footwear and any garden tools used.

I recommend washing yourself and your laundry with Tecnu liquid cleanser, which does a good job of removing traces of the resins. Avoid showering with soap, as it can spread the oils to other parts of your body.

Proper disposal of poison ivy is critical. Don’t even think about burning it because the smoke would contain toxins that, when inhaled, would cause what would amount to a poison ivy rash in your lungs. It’s not pretty, and can even be fatal. Put the ivy in a heavy black plastic bag, seal it up tightly and set it out with the trash.

Nonselective herbicides containing triclopyr (such as Brush-B-Gon) or glyphosate (Roundup) can be used to kill the plant if and when it begins to grow back, either later this season or in spring (or both), but be aware that they also will kill every other plant in the area, including grass. Generally, the sprays are applied to leaves, which should wilt within a day, turn brown in three days and die within a couple of weeks, at which point it should be removed taking the same precautions as above. Repeat applications may be necessary. Always carefully read and follow label directions. If you are opposed to using chemicals, you can skip this step, but may have to repeat the pulling, digging — and exposure — over several seasons.

It sounds like you’re overrun with the plant, and practically imprisoned in your home because of it. I understand cost is a concern, but if the extent of the invasion is too much for you to handle on your own, it might warrant calling a poison ivy removal expert to protect yourself, ensure its complete eradication and reclaim your backyard.

Good luck!

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