poison ivy

Photo: Rob Byron/Shutterstock

No matter which old poison ivy saying you use to identify the plant — “Leaves of three, let it be,” “Berries white, run in fright” — the effects after you brush up against this most irksome plant are the same — a terrible, itchy, blistery rash, caused by the presence of urushiol, an oily resin, in the plant’s stem and leaves.

So what if you’ve got poison ivy in your backyard? If you’ve always got kids playing back there, poison ivy is like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Sooner or later, someone will drop their ball or throw their Frisbee back there, or worse, fall into the leaves. If you’d like to be rid of poison ivy once and for all, here are some tried and true techniques that work without the use of harsh chemicals. (What's wrong with harsh chemicals? This article on glyphosate is a good starting point: U.S. researchers find Roundup chemical in water, air)

Firstly, try pulling the plants. This may be the best way to be rid of poison ivy since it works fast and you can see immediate results. Interestingly, there are some people who are virtually immune to the allergic effects of poison ivy. If you happen to have a friend like that willing to help you — lucky you! But if you’re doing it yourself, be sure to suit up properly. You’ll not only need to wear gloves (be sure they don’t have holes) to cover your hands; you’ll also need to cover every part of your body that may come in contact with the plant. That means duct taping your pants around your socks and the edges of your shirts to your gloves. When you're done, wash your clothes at least twice, or even throw them out. It may seem extreme, but taking a few moments of extra precaution before the task could save you hours (or days) of discomfort afterward.

When you pull the plant, make sure you dig out about eight inches beneath the plant to make sure you’ve got all the roots out. Then cover the area with cardboard or paper to prevent regrowth. Once you’ve pulled the offending plant and its roots out of the ground, deposit it into a leakproof garbage bag for garbage collection.

poison ivy salt soap sprayAnother technique to try if manual labor’s not your thing: Combine 3 pounds (yes, you read right) of salt with 1 gallon of water and 1/4 cup dish soap. Mix well, pour into a water sprayer, and spray away. Spraying this mixture will kill all plant growth it comes into contact with, so be sure you’re spraying only the poison ivy. Also, it’s best to do this on a sunny day since rain can wash the solution right off. It might take a few applications to do the trick, but it’ll work.

And while we’re on the topic of poison ivy, let’s talk about some remedies for your body once you’ve come into contact with it. If you’re lucky enough to be near running water, quickly rinse off the affected area with cool water (my sister learned that one the hard way). Often, when the affected area is rinsed within 30 minutes of exposure, a full-on rash can be prevented.

What if you’re not so lucky? If you happen to be in the backwoods, find a stream to rinse off in, stat. If you can’t find water in time and the rash presents itself, there are some things you can do to alleviate your discomfort: Try rubbing a baking soda paste (made with some baking soda mixed with water) on the affected area, take a bath with a product formulated for itchy, dry or otherwise irritated skin, or keep a cool compress on the rash. Careful though — once you get the area wet, be sure to pat it dry since rubbing with a towel can make the rash start to itch again. Click here to read about more natural treatments for poison ivy.

It should be noted that while poison ivy can have painful effects on humans, it has a valuable place in the world around us. Deer, birds and even insects eat the plant, and some small animals use poison ivy as shelter. In fact, if you see poison ivy in a part of your yard where no one will touch it, better to leave it for the wildlife that live there than try to remove it. Doing your part for the environment — no manual labor required. 

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