Poison Ivy : An Unlikely Ally
I’m not sure there is a more unanimously hated plant on this continent than Toxicodendron radicans, the Poison Ivy. Admittedly, it is a difficult plant to love. It makes many people uncomfortable and can even be dangerous for those who suffer from a severe allergy or sensitivity to the urushiol oil it contains. This is plant undoubtedly demands respect, but it also offers many unique and potent gifts for native landscapes and wildlife.
When I first walked the land I now steward, the abundance of poison ivy on the land was a major concern. Its weighty presence factored heavily into my decision about whether or not to choose this land as my own. I was afraid to work with it, not knowing if I had a serious sensitivity to it or not. But I was drawn to this land in a way I couldn’t explain, and I ultimately decided to follow my intuition. Even after I accepted the opportunity, I went through five stages of emotions:
- Ordering too much protective gear on Amazon
- Considering violating my organic standards “just this one time”
- Careful curiosity
- Appreciation and respect for this interesting and useful native plant
I never expected to arrive at stage 5, but this plant has actually become one of my favorites. Obviously I don’t allow it to grow in the garden where it could cause a problem for someone, but I have learned to regard it as a valuable ally in the still-rehabilitating parts of this land.
A Plant For Everyone Else
Poison Ivy is in the same plant family as Cashews and Mangoes, but you can’t eat it. Although it’s very beautiful, it’s not a good choice to include in your flower arrangement. Its vines are strong, but they would not make a good basket. I do not recommend trying to make medicine out of it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a useless plant. The thing is, this plant is not really here for human beings. It’s here for everybody else.
Poison Ivy is native to most of the Eastern half of the US & Canada, including Indiana. Other related species fill in the gaps, so you can encounter members of this itchy plant family pretty much anywhere on this continent. As a native plant, it provides some inherent benefits as a result of its coevolution with the soils, microbes, insects, and wildlife of this bioregion. It produces white berries in the autumn that are a valuable food source for birds. Small animals appreciate the shelter that it provides during nesting season, and some animals even eat the leaves. A variety of insects including some butterflies and pollinators benefit from this plant. Humans (and possibly other primates) are the only known species who are allergic or sensitive to this plant. Poison Ivy is a pioneer species, meaning it is one of the first plants to cover up disturbed soils such as those recovering from industrial agriculture or construction. It also rushes in to protect damaged areas of the forest after large trees fall. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, including sand, salt, and flooding, so it can help protect even the most difficult soils from erosion while they heal.
I have come to regard Poison Ivy as a guardian plant. Over the parts of the land that I have not yet been able to rehabilitate, it has come forward as a primary ally for soil restoration. I love the birds and the frogs and the butterflies and the bees, and I appreciate all the services this plant provides to those populations. I do not welcome it into my garden, but I’m willing to work with it and around it in the wilder spaces. I respect it, I keep my distance, and I value its contribution to our shared habitat.
I’m not suggesting that you go out and purchase poison ivy seeds to plant in your garden. If your land needs this plant, it will likely show up uninvited. When it does, think about why it’s there. Do you have unprotected bare soil? Do the birds in your area have adequate winter food sources? Does your land provide shelter for wildlife? Nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees? Even if you determine you need to remove the poison ivy, consider what else you might be able to replace it with that might fulfill some of those needs.
The key to coexisting in peace with poison ivy is to avoid being harmed by it. I can’t offer you any safety guarantees regarding this plant. Even if you’ve never had a poison ivy rash, it’s possible to develop the allergy later in life. I’m not very sensitive to it myself, so the precautions I take may not be sufficient for you if you’re more sensitive. I can share the tips that are working for me, and maybe they’ll benefit some of you. If you’re extremely sensitive, you might want to consider outsourcing any task involving poison ivy to a less sensitive friend or a professional.
A major part of my personal safety approach involves awareness. I survey the area I’m about to work in before I begin so that I know all the possible points of contact in that space. If any part of my equipment or my clothing makes contact with poison ivy, I want to know about it so I can prevent cross-contamination.
I always cover up while I work, and this serves multiple purposes. I start by rubbing sunflower oil onto my hands and arms to increase the protective barrier on my skin. Then, even in the hot summer, my work gear includes: tight long leggings with tall socks pulled up over them, a long sleeved shirt tucked into those leggings, work gloves, overalls on top of all that, and boots.
I am well aware that I am unlikely to win any fashion awards for this outfit.
All this clothing helps to protect me from poison ivy, but that’s not the only reason I wear it. It also helps to protect me from tick bites, sunburns, thorns, and the many other hazards that are very common in my line of work. At the end of the day, all that gear (except the boots) goes directly into the washing machine. I frequently spray my boots and tools with rubbing alcohol (which helps to break down urushiol) and periodically soap them up with dawn dish soap before rinsing them off with a hose.
If I know I need to remove the plant from a certain area, I make that the last thing I do in a day so I can plan to clean up right away and prevent cross-contamination. I also keep two spray bottles of rubbing alcohol accessible outside my house so that if I think I might have some urushiol on my hands, I can try to neutralize it with alcohol before ever touching a water spout or a door knob. I use the second spray bottle to spray down the first bottle after I’ve touched it.
I always take a shower at the end of my work day, even if I don’t think I’ve made skin contact with poison ivy. I’ve read that cool water showers are recommended after poison ivy contact, and I find a cool shower to be very refreshing at the end of a hot work day anyway. If I know I’ve touched poison ivy, I actually pre-wash all exposed areas with Dawn dish soap and thoroughly scrub my fingernails with a nail brush before ever touching my regular bar of soap. Even though I’m not very sensitive to poison ivy, it’s important to me to thoroughly clean all the oils off so that I don’t spread them around to places where others may contact them.
When I need to remove poison ivy from a specific area, I put on dishwashing gloves and pull it. The little leaves popping up from the ground are not usually the source of the roots, so I carefully feel around below them for the main vine growing along the ground. I slide my fingers underneath the vine and carefully, slowly, pull up on that vine. I make sure to keep my hands close to the part I’m pulling up to maximize my control of long vines and prevent any unexpected “whipping”. If I do this while the soil is moist, I find that the roots lift out easily and I’m able to extract a large portion of the vine with each pull. Still, it’s likely that I’ll miss some roots and that I’ll have to come back and remove a few straggler sprouts in a month or so.
When I’m done, I throw the dishwashing gloves away. Then I wash my hands thoroughly. Then I load all the clothes I was wearing into my washing machine, wash my hands again after touching the clothes, and then I shower.
Never, ever, burn poison ivy. I think it would be okay to double-bag it and dispose of it in a trash can, but I simply move it to a wilder area where people are unlikely to go so it can compost in peace. Do not put it in your regular compost pile that you use for your vegetable garden.
In a world that is so heavily dominated by humans, laden with our electrical wires and roads and dams and buildings and smog and deadly fast vehicles, is it so bad to share a bit of space with a plant that feeds the birds, shelters nesting animals, and regenerates the soils that have been suffering as a result of our industry? If you’re one of those people who has an extreme reaction after contacting this plant, I understand if you need to clear it from your own space. But for many people, basic safety precautions may be enough to facilitate diplomatic relations with this interesting and valuable native plant. My hope is that next time you see poison ivy growing somewhere, you might look at it a little differently. Like a comic book villain, the origin story of this plant reveals a hidden complexity and relatability. From my perspective, this plant is not really bad. It’s just misunderstood.
For Further Reading:
Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.