Gardening Fast Facts: Poison Ivy

"Leaves of three, let it be" is good advice to follow to avoid coming in contact with poison ivy (Rhus radicans). Poison ivy is a member of the tropical Cashew family, the same family where we get our delicious cashew and pistachio nuts. (Even plant families can have their "good and bad apples!")

All parts of the poison ivy plant are poisonous. The chemical in it that causes skin irritation is an acidic compound that causes some people to break out in an itchy, unpleasant rash and blisters. Even very small amounts of the compound can cause irritation, and the infection can appear several days after contact. Scratching may break the blisters that form, but these blisters contain body fluids which will not make the rash spread if broken. The rash is spread through contact with the chemical compound itself, which can occur by touching the plant or by handling contaminated articles.

To treat a poison ivy skin rash, first remove all contaminated clothing and wash them. Next, wash all affected skin with strong soap and water, and dab on some rubbing alcohol. Over-the-counter creams help to ease the itching and dry up the rash. By washing up within 20 minutes after contact, you can reduce the severity of the rash or possibly prevent it from forming.

Poison ivy is a tough weed. To rid your yard of it, repeat applications of a weed killer that is labeled for use on poison ivy will probably be necessary. If it's growing in a bed of desirable plants, you'll have to hand-pull it out, or paint the leaves with the weed killer using a tiny brush or cotton swab. If you'd rather not use chemical herbicides, hand-pulling of the vines is easiest when the soil is moist (perhaps after a rain). No matter which method you choose, be sure to wear long sleeves and gloves, and wash up afterwards!

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