ONE GARDENER TO ANOTHER: How to identify and treat poison ivy, oak and sumac | Lifestyles

Shortly after moving to my Georgia home, I noticed some thick, hairy vines growing on the trunks of some of my trees. I found them looking terrible, so I grabbed my gloves and scissors and set out to remove the ugly beasts. I cut and tore at it until my trees were free of them.

My son, then 5 years old, was walking around the island with a branch, holding it like a divining rod, pointing to different vines and warning “Do not touch, poison poison ivy”, which I thought was funny at the time. Long story short, eight weeks and several antibiotics and topical ointments later, I stopped itching and knew exactly what poison ivy looked like. I also learned a few rhymes that will help me identify poison ivy, not that I would ever forget.

Leaves of three, let it be.

Berries white, frightened.

Hairy vine, not a friend of mine.

These easy-to-remember lines are the tell-tale signs you will encounter with poison ivy.

Poison ivy leaves always grow in groups of three. Other plants such as raspberries and blackberries also have three leaves, but also have thorns that never appear on poison ivy.

The middle poison ivy leaflet is on a long stem, while the side leaflets are on much shorter stems that protrude from the longer one. The leaflets are pointed at the tip, and sometimes one of the lateral leaflets has a dimple that makes it look like a mitten. The leaves are shiny and smooth. Although the leaves are green in summer, they turn reddish-orange in autumn and red and orange in spring.

Poison ivy can grow as a bush or as a creeper or drag vine. Bushes grow to a height of about 4 feet, trailing vines grow to about 4 inches, and climbing vines that use trees or fences for support can grow up to 100 feet.

In summer, pale green berries grow in the bushes, which turn waxy and white in autumn. The leaves also fall around this time, but the berries remain all year round. Birds and other forest animals such as rabbits, deer and squirrels can consume the berries without harm. In humans, pain and swelling of the lips, tongue, face, and skin are caused by needle-like crystals contained in the berries.

The leaves, stems, and roots of poison ivy all contain a clear liquid called urushiol, which is found in the plant sap. It is the cause of the itchy rash associated with touching poison ivy. This pruritic compound can easily be transmitted through direct contact or by touching objects such as clothing, tools or shoes that have had direct contact with the plant.

Although poison ivy does not affect them because their fur acts as a protection for their skin, dogs and cats caught in a piece of poison ivy can spread urushiol on anything they paint against. It is advisable to give your pet a nice bath before coming back to your home after contact.

Poison oak has the same properties as poison ivy, but the leaves are similar to oak leaves, they are duller green with a rougher surface, and the leaflets, unlike poison ivy, have hairs on both sides.

Poison sumac usually has between seven and 13 leaflets. It can grow as a shrub or tree, and is more likely to be found in damp, swampy than forested areas. Non-toxic sumac like staghorn and smooth sumac grow in drier locations.

Prevention, treatment

The best defense against poison ivy is prevention. Long pants, sleeves, gloves, and boots can protect the skin while gardening or hiking. Be careful not to touch your face with gloved hands that have come into contact with the plant. You should see a doctor if you have severe swelling, fever, or difficulty breathing or swallowing.

If you come into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac, wash the area with mild soap and water. Calamine lotions, cool compresses, or a paste of baking soda and water applied to the infected area can help relieve itching.

I believe the earth holds all secrets and brings forth plants that are supposed to heal. In this case, Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not, is the answer. The leaves and stems of this plant can be crushed and the juices applied to the skin as a preventive measure against the poison.

Knowing how to identify these plants goes a long way in preventing a miserable itchy episode. Have fun gardening until next week.

– Ireland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at [email protected] Visit for more information on Limestone County Master Gardeners.

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