POISON IVY: Fight the Itch with Wildwoods Wisdom



Poison Ivy in full sunlight takes on a bushy form

A walk through shady woods or a sun-soaked meadow is the perfect way to embrace the wonders of summer. It’s healthful, relaxing and has endless rewards, some for the eyes and some for the taste buds. Juicy black raspberries are ripe, blackberries are almost ready and in hidden pockets of more northern landscapes, blueberries please the palate. Yet, hidden in plain sight for those that are not in the know is Toxicodendron radicans, better known as poison ivy. The summer of 2015 has produced a bumper crop of this plant of itching woe, a plant that triggers a painful itching, blistering and sometimes oozing reaction. This extreme reaction happens when Urushiol, the sap of the plant, makes even the slightest contact with the skin.

Poison Ivy can be found in many landscapes, including shady woodlands in Oakland County and the windswept sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

With medical experts stating that up to 85% of Americans are allergic to Urushiol, avoidance is recommended. However, it is not just the simple matter of “leaflets three, let it be”. That childhood rhyme of old is actually not valid as it includes many plants, even wild strawberries. Poison ivy can be found at ground level and also grows in bush-like forms in sunny areas. It can even climb 20 – 30 feet or higher up a tree. By the middle of summer, some leaves hang down from vines at the perfect face-slapping height. And the news worsens: Urushiol can be transferred from a dog’s fur or from the outside of clothing. The oil that remains can be volatile for years! The hidden oil can persist on boots and shoe laces from one summer to the next. For back country campers, another nightmare lurks. If a dried poison ivy vine ends up in the fire, the oil binds with smoke particles and can cause serious lung irritations along with what doctors delicately term, allergic contact dermatitis.

A large poison ivy vine dwarfs six foot tall Jim Lloyd of the Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy on the banks of the Shiawassee River

A large poison ivy vine dwarfs six foot tall Jim Lloyd of the Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy on the banks of the Shiawassee River

Poison ivy is confused with many plants. The most common that lead to misidentification in Oakland County are wild grape, fragrant sumac and Virginia creeper. The slideshow photos show recognizable characteristics of poison ivy leaves, vines and berries in their many different forms. Perhaps the very best way to learn how to identify is by hiking with a knowledgeable friend.

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If contact exposure occurs, washing as soon as possible with liquid detergent may help. Better yet, plan ahead and buy preventive and post exposure treatment liquids and handy wipes from commercial companies. Tecnu is a leader in poison ivy exposure prevention and treatment products for utility workers, outdoor industry and work crews, wildland firefighters, park rangers and back county hikers. Its website includes detailed information on poison ivy, including identification tips. Tecnu wipes are in my situational awareness summer day pack right alongside matches, a compass, knife and an emergency shelter. When you’re out for a hike in the woods and enjoying the beautiful summer here in Oakland County, don’t forget to be aware and protect yourself from poison ivy.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. schechterj@oakgov.com

Visit DestinationOakland for details on all 13 Oakland County Parks including special summer events, trails, fishing, camping and boating.

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