Poison Ivy In The Waning Days of Winter

Wilder Side of Oakland Countyimg_87781

Thoughts of spring may remain buried under blankets of snow yet cycles of nature on the wilder side of Oakland County continue unnoticed.  One day soon choruses of spring peepers and wood frogs will add music to silent wetlands and woodland flowers will enrich sunny hillsides with delicate blossoms. But first the snows must melt.  We wait for that day. We dream of that day.   And no one is thinking about poison ivy.



Urushiol is the volatile oil of poison ivy that causes an allergic reaction that leads to an itchy curse of weeping welts and bumps and blister to be followed by a nasty yellow crust.  Urushiol does not go away in winter.  Late winter acquired poison ivy is a serious hidden danger that lurks in plain sight, a danger than can be avoided with a bit of caution and awareness of the vines of winter.  A winter of high winds and powerful ice storms downed thousands of trees and snapped thousands, perhaps millions of branches.  The continuing chore of clean up as snows recede increases the chances of unintended exposure.   Many of the damaged trees were entwined with poison ivy vines—some as thick as human wrists. The bruised and broken vines will ooze urushiol as the mercury climbs above freezing.

Identifying the vines lessens the chance of exposure.  Poison ivy vines cling tightly to trees and some may extend 30 feet or more up trunks. Tiny reddish “rootlets” cling to the tree bark; another distinguishing identification mark.  All parts of poison ivy plants including roots and vines are rich with urushiol and exposed skin rubbing against the plant – any part of the plant – is sufficient for exposure.  And the news gets worse:  Tools used during the ice storm clean up can harbor the hidden oil for years.


Grape vines are often confused with poison ivy vines in woodland habitats. But grape vines, unlike the poison ivy vines have thick bark that seems to shred and peel and tends to dangle freely from the trees.


Text and photos  by Jonathan Schechter,  Nature Education Writer  –  Oakland County Parks  www.oakgov.com/parks

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