Watch your step: poison ivy is now in bloom

Poison ivy has been a bane to our existence ever since Captain John Smith named it “poison ivy” in 1609. The rash one gets from the urushiol oil in the plant’s leaves can range from the merely uncomfortable to a stay at the hospital.

Humans are the only species allergic to poison ivy. For the rest of nature, it serves as a food source. Seventy-five bird species, including turkey, bob-white quail and mockingbirds eat the fruit. White-tailed deer, and other grazing animals, eat the leaves.

Poison ivy, along with poison oak and poison sumac, are cousins to cashews, mangos, and pistachios. Allergies to the poisonous plants does not mean you will be allergic to their cousins. But, if you have an allergy to any of the edible cousins, your reaction to poison ivy may be severe.

Two species of poison ivy and poison oak live in North America, and all occur in Texas. The most common poison ivy in Texas is the climbing variety (Toxicodendron radicans). The vines grow straight up, as high as 20 feet, draping over the support plant. It produces greenish-white flowers in June. The yellow or white round, waxy fruit, about one-fourth in diameter, appear in July.

Oil from poison ivy plant can bond with skin in 15 minutes and cause rashes that last up to 15 days. Oil from poison ivy plant can bond with skin in 15 minutes and cause rashes that last up to 15 days. Leaves can have smooth or toothed edges. They are small or large, and usually come with three leaves, but they can also have five to seven. They can be mistaken for dewberries and Virginia creeper, which has five leaves.

The non-climbing, shrublike poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) is found mainly in the panhandle and west Texas. It hybridizes with the climbing species.

Pretty much everyone is allergic to the urushiol oil. If you haven’t gotten it yet, it’s a matter of time. The more contact with poison ivy, the higher likelihood you will get a rash.

You must touch the oil to get the rash. Standing next to the plant is fine. The oil can be transferred from your pet’s fur, clothing, or anything that has touched the plant.

The oil becomes airborne when plants are burnt, so take precautions around fires that may be burning poison ivy plants.

It only takes one nanogram (billionth of a gram) to cause a rash. One-fourth ounce of urushiol oil will cause a rash in every person on earth. The oil even remains active for up to five years on dead plants.

I’ve read that within 15 minutes after contact, the urushiol oil has bonded with the skin, and you can’t get it off. I’ve also read that if you wash within the hour after contact, you may not get a rash. So, you have somewhere between 15 minutes to an hour to wash the oil off your skin and prevent a rash. Use cold water or alcohol to remove. A hot shower will open your pores and allow the oil easy access to your skin.

Once the oil has bonded with your skin, it will not spread. You can’t get it by touching someone’s rash, nor can you spread it by scratching.

Expect to be miserable for up to 15 days. You can ease the itch by taking a hot shower (now it’s okay to do that). However, cooling the skin down will slow fluid leakage from the blisters.

Poison oak can be mistaken for poison ivy. Western Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) does not occur in Texas. Eastern Poison Oak (Toxicodendron toxicarium) does live here. It has oak-like leaves, and grows best in sandy soils.

Poison ivy and poison oak have similar waxy fruits, as well as the same cluster of leaves (leaves of three). However, poison ivy is flowering now, whereas poison oak will flower from August to November.

El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

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