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Poison ivy a sticky subject

| Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
The oils from poison ivy can remain potent on a tree for five years.

According to many of my gardening friends, this has been a particularly bad year for poison ivy. It seems that the rainy spring and summer have encouraged ample poison ivy growth and everyone is coming down with the rash. And wondering how best to get rid of the plants without resorting to nasty chemicals.

About 80 percent of the population is susceptible to the urushiol oil contained in poison-ivy plants. It is contact with this oil that causes skin to break out in a red, bumpy, itchy rash. But even if you haven't developed a rash in the past, new exposures can always bring about an allergic reaction. In fact, repeated exposures increase the odds of susceptibility.

That's why it's so important to wash up with a poison-ivy soap like Tecnu or Ivy Off immediately after possible exposure to the plant, including in the winter. These products break up the urushiol and allow it to be washed off the skin readily. Urushiol residue remains potent on exposed clothing, tools, shoes and pets for several years, so carefully washing all these items is a must as well.

A rash from poison-ivy exposure initially develops right where the urushiol directly contacted the skin anywhere from a few hours to a few days after contact. The really bad news is that the poison-ivy allergen can then be carried systemically within your body, causing other areas of rash to “pop up” anywhere on your skin. It is not, however, contagious to other people who come in contact with the rash on your skin, even if it's oozing. The initial exposure must come from direct contact with the urushiol itself.

Unfortunately, it's possible to contract poison ivy year-round. You can contract it from exposure to the leaves for sure, but you can also get it from touching the dormant stems and even the root system. Because of this, be careful when handling firewood from trees that may have had poison-ivy vines growing up them. The vines and exposed wood remain poisonous for up five years after being cut down. Plus, the smoke produced from burning poison ivy is also dangerous; you can end up developing the rash all over your body and even in your lungs.

To successfully get rid of small- to medium-sized poison-ivy plants, dig them out. As I am highly allergic myself, I have a dedicated “poison-ivy shovel” in my shed that I only use to dig out poison-ivy plants. I wear an old raincoat and chemical-resistant gloves for the task (these too are dedicated as “poison ivy gear”). Once the plant is dug out, I put a large plastic trash bag up over my arm and then pick up the plant and flip the bag down over it, so it's completely encased in the bag (kind of like picking up after Fido). I then tie the bag closed and throw it in the garbage.

Larger vines are a tougher issue. I have hired a landscaper to remove them for us in the past and would probably do the same again, if the need arose. You also can saw off the “trunk” of the ivy and allow the top portion to die off on it's own (but remember, the urushiol can remain potent for up to five years). You can dig out the root or continue to regularly remove any new growth as soon as it sprouts. This will eventually serve to starve the roots of carbohydrates and kill the plant.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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