Hello fellow readers,
When I was a girl my sister dared me to rub a leaf all over me. Even then I was a plant person and always up to a challenge of ‘I dare you’. The leaf was in a grouping of three and I picked one and dutifully painted myself with it. I bet you known where this is going…
It turns out I’m allergic to poison ivy as are about 80 percent of us – some more than others. My reaction was awful (big surprise) causing my eyes to swell shut. It’s true that most people will have a greater reaction with repeated or extreme exposure.
‘What’s the bright red vine I have growing up my tree? Poison ivy?’ asked Josephine of Andover. It could be, as poison ivy does turn a glorious bright red in fall. Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is often mistaken for poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) but has five leaflets – poison ivy has three. Come fall, Virginia creeper has dark purple berries while poison ivy’s are greyish white.
Virginia creeper berries contain oxalic acid which is moderately toxic to humans and other mammals but provides a food source for birds. The sap of the plant has needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate. If the leaves are crushed they can prick skin causing irritation and blisters to some, so wear gloves when handling.
It’s the urushiol oil contained in all parts of the poison ivy plant (leaves, stems, roots, flowers and berries) that causes the reaction when touched by people. But poison ivy is commonly munched by many animals such as deer and bear and the berries are enjoyed by birds.
Both vines are frequently seen covering trees or shrubs and they can kill them by shading their ability to photosynthesize. But before you wrestle them down, best to ID what you are tackling. You may have heard rhymes to help identify poison ivy: ‘Leaflets three; let it be’, ‘Hairy vine, no friend of mine’ and ‘Berries white, run in fright’.
Urushiol oil can remain active for years so handling dead leaves or vines can still cause a bad reaction. And the oil can transfer to tools or pet fur then to you. Even if you think you aren’t allergic, a whopping exposure such as cutting up a downed tree wrapped in a dead poison ivy vine may cause a bad reaction. Isn’t that right Curt? ‘If it’s hairy you better ask Mary.’
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Warning: If poison ivy is burned and the smoke inhaled, the rash can appear on the lining of the lungs and cause extreme pain and possibly a fatal respiratory complication.
Tips: While Virginia creeper grows rampant in the wild it is also used as an ornamental plant. It can quickly cover walls keeping a building cooler by shading the surface and its fall color is a show stopper. Though it adheres to the surface by disks rather than penetrating roots, it does not harm the masonry. But, as with Boston ivy, ripping the plant from the wall can damage the surface. If you kill the plant first by cutting the vine at the root, the adhesive pads will eventually deteriorate and release their grip.