Poison Ivy Pondering

Two years ago, my family spent a summer sleeping in an old tobacco barn, with an outdoor kitchen setup under a tarp. We moved into this cozy space at the beginning of April. After about a week of enjoying our kitchen, we began noticing little vines popping up out of the ground EVERYWHERE. Much to my dismay, it was Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. Poison Ivy is in the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes cashew, pistachio, mango, and sumac.

…Now, early on in my plant learning days, I was taught that it is rude to name a plant as “poison”. Would you want to be referred to as “The Bringer of Harm”? (One friend read this and said, “Yes, I absolutely want to be named The Bringer of Harm!”) As I understand it, these thoughtful incites stem from the late Frank Cook*, who was a teacher of some of my teachers. He proposed the name Sister Ivy, which is what many folks call it today. I think it’s a nice sentiment, but my partner also brings up the practical reality, “Well, it’s called ‘poison’ to let people know not to touch it. If you introduce a plant as Sister Ivy, it makes you want to set up camp there!” Both perspectives appreciated and noted! I’ve taken to affectionately calling this plant P.Ivy (Pie-vee)…

Because our kitchen was on the only flat spot available, we took on the job of pulling out the roots. I dedicated some gloves specifically for the job, marked them with cool “P.Ivy Pull” knuckle tats, wore long sleeves and pants, and took on the job for one afternoon. I hauled all the roots about 100 ft up the road and dumped them, with apologies to that immediate area. To my surprise, two years later, there is no sign of it taking off at that spot (perhaps because it was full shade?). In more recent P.Ivy pulls, I’ve taken to burning it, while being careful to not inhale any of the smoke. It is highly preferable to pull P.Ivy in the early spring when the leaves are small and red. At this time, it is easier to handle, as opposed to when the leaves are bigger. (Many agriculture departments warn to never remove P.Ivy by hand or burn it, because they don’t want people to get hurt. But, I trust that you have a brain and you can be cautious and logical. It’s nice to not use toxic chemicals, the real poisons agricultural departments could probably focus on…)

The old saying, “Leaves of three; leave it be” is all about P.Ivy. (But don’t forget the other half of this saying, “Leaves of three; might be a berry!” referring to beloved blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, etc.). P.Ivy grows as a vine, that might appear as a bush, or even a tree if it’s climbed high enough. The two lower leaves often resemble a mitten. The center leaf is more extended, while the lower two leaves connect directly to the stem. The leaves often have quite the shine to them, often with reddish hues. The vine is hairy (so is Virginia Creeper). It can take many forms, so rather than writing every identification variable here, have someone introduce you to it. It’s definitely worth knowing!

P.Ivy presents as a fierce defender of wild spaces. It thrives on the edges of disturbed areas that have been cleared for human activity, as if to say, “STOP! Go no farther!” It covers the topsoil, offering security as it recovers from destruction. I often see it’s fat furry vine climbing up the biggest trees in a space; protecting the elders, I assume. Botanical descriptions write that it chooses the big trees for their solid support, so perhaps I am anthropomorphizing? But I am not the only one who sees P.Ivy as an aggressive guardian…

In 1966, DC Comics introduced the Batman supervillian Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley or, better known as, Poison Ivy. She is a Gotham City botanist and biochemist, as well as a victim of scientific experimentation, who is passionate about environmentalism and ecological extinction. She exudes plant tactics and toxins in her endeavors to protect endangered species, and has a strong preference for plants over humans. I think she’s pretty rad.

But back to the plant…Beyond protecting undomesticated spaces from the human nuisance, P.Ivy’s white berries are an important food source among big and small birds, raccoons, muskrats, as well as white-tailed deer (domesticated goats and pigs will also eat it). The seeds are designed to be eaten; they sprout after digestion softens the seed coat, and birds might disperse them along the edges of the next homestead. The berries are rich in fat and last long into the winter; perfect for sustaining the migrating birds in the fall and resident birds through the cold months.

Some folks say that only humans react to P.Ivy, however, I have found this rash on my puppy’s belly after she’s been in a P.Ivy patch: looks a lot like a reaction to me! Since puppyhood, she has grown more fur on her abdomen and doesn’t seem to react. So perhaps it is our bare skin that makes us particularly vulnerable.

I experience pretty extensive rashes about three days after I contact the plant, covering significant portions of my body for 3-4 weeks. It’s annoying, and since I work as a massage therapist, I feel a lot of pressure to not get a rash, assuming my clients prefer to avoid my oozy dermatitis. Thus remedies for the rash have become an in-depth personal experiment of mine, starting back 10 years ago when I first began experiencing outbreaks.

P.Ivy contains an irritating substance called urushiol, which causes the allergic reaction. Urushiol is an oily mixture of organic compounds in the sap of the plant, found in all parts, above ground and underground. The urushiol binds with the proteins in the fatty cells beneath your epidermis. This oil remains potent for a long time after it has left the plant. For example, if you touch the plant with gloves, and then touch those gloves three months later, there’s a good chance you will react. Be mindful of this with firewood! And your furry friends who run indiscriminately through the woods! Skin is often not initially sensitive to urushiol, but apparently sensitivity builds up with exposure. This may explain why I never had a rash until I was in my early 20s. As a kid, I surely came in contact with it, spending many of my days playing on the edges of a young, disturbed forest. Though I was spared in my youth, children can indeed react. And it is possible to have a systemic allergic reaction, at any age. These photos show the 3 week progression of one of my rashes. (Google “poison ivy rash” if you really want to cringe.)

Preventing a P.Ivy Rash:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially with this rash! I have four things to propose as an act of preventing a P.Ivy rash:

1. Awareness. It may seem simple, but watching my steps and avoiding P.Ivy really is the best way to not get a rash. In our culture, we are often not used to watching where we step. For much of my life, I bulldozed through the day with my head in the clouds. But when my love affair with plants began, I suddenly found myself acutely aware of every footfall.

2. Wash with soap ASAP! If you’ve been exposed, scrub the affected area for at least 30 seconds. Hot water might help, though urushiol has been shown to withstand heat over 300 degrees C, so maybe it doesn’t matter? Apparently 50% of the urushiol absorbs into the skin within 10 minutes! So don’t dilly-dally.

Probably the most thorough soap available for P.Ivy exposure is called Tecnu Poison Ivy & Oak Scrub. It’s an exfoliant soap specific for removing urushiol. It’s also a little pricey. Dawn soap and it’s generic equivalents also work well. These are gnarly degreasers and thus theoretically remove the urushiol oil. If I’m exposed, I typically use Dawn to wash myself, the dog, or a tool that may have come in contact with P.Ivy. Or I might use other “Poison Ivy specific soaps” that include…

3. Jewelweed. This luscious, water-loving plant is often found growing very close to P.Ivy. Where it grows, it is prolific. It’s gooey juices, when applied before or immediately after contact with P.Ivy prevent a rash from forming. The late James Duke wrote, “I treat my students to a dramatic little demonstration: I find [poison ivy] and apply its juice to the sensitive undersides of both my wrists. A minute or two later, I wipe one wrist with a ball of crushed jewelweed leaves and stems. Three days later, the wrist that I didn’t treat with jewelweed shows the typical itchy, blistery poison-plant rash. The wrist rubbed with jewelweed invariably shows much less of a rash, and sometimes none at all.”** Now that is commitment to the educational process! James Duke also notes that Dr. Robert Rosen isolated an active ingredient in Jewelweed that binds to the same molecular sites on the skin as urushiol, though I don’t have more info on this “active constituent”.

Whenever I am out and about, and suspect I may have contacted P.Ivy, I roll and squish Jewelweed leaves in between my hands and rub the abundant juice all over my body. Some people say they also get helpful results using Jewelweed on an active rash, but it has never worked for me once the rash is apparent. As a preventative though, I am confident in it’s ability. It may not completely prevent the rash, but it will significantly limit the size of the rash. Many P.Ivy soaps commercially available include Jewelweed as a primary ingredient. I have made extracts with alcohol and water, but I strongly feel the fresh plant juice works best. This could be frozen in ice cubes for the winter months.

4. Eating P.Ivy. Please read thoroughly before you go out and eat a handful of those shiny leaves! When I first began reacting to P.Ivy, I knew some folks who ate the leaves in spring to reduce allergic reactions. One friend would go out and pull P.Ivy bare-handed after these trials, swearing by it’s success. At the time, I was too scared to try. However, after becoming a massage therapist, I’m desperate to avoid the rashes, which were increasingly consuming my life each summer. So I tried it, had amazing results, and have now completed my third spring of eating P.Ivy. I know 6 other people who’ve done this with no hiccups, but I have also heard vague stories of a “friend of a friends of a friend” ending up in the hospital from doing this. Because there is certainly some risk involved, I let those I live with know what I am doing, just in case it goes badly and I need help. That said, here’s how I go about it…

In early spring, I consume an “encapsulated” small tip of a young leaf once per day, for 15 days. As I understand it, the urushiol doesn’t stand a chance against stomach acid, so I am most concerned about contact before it reaches the stomach. To avoid contact, I wrap the leaf tip in a bit of bread (mushy wonder bread works well for this purpose), and then I swallow this lump whole. I repeat this for 15 days and call it good for the year. For me, this approach works really well and has been an absolute GAME CHANGER! Since doing this, I have not had the large rashes I was accustomed to. I still occasionally get little dots here or there, but nothing like I had previously experienced. (However, I am still not confident enough to perform a bare-handed P.Ivy pull!)

It is possible that the immunity gained from this 15 day process will last longer than a year. In fact, before I began my P.Ivy consumption this spring, I did get a teenny-tiny rash on my leg that only lasted about 3 days. So it’s possible I could cease the once a year process and the results would last from previous years. But I haven’t tried because I don’t want to risk ending up with large rashes again.

Please, please note: there are safety concerns here, use this info at your own risk!

[An alternative to eating P.Ivy is to drink milk from a goat that eats P.Ivy. This obviously requires knowing the goat whose milk you are drinking, and following it around to see if it is eating P.Ivy. I have heard of it working well, and not really working at all. Probably depends on how much P.Ivy is being consumed.]

I use all of these precautions regularly: I eat P.Ivy in the spring and I am pretty darn aware of which plants I am stepping on as I walk through life. If come in contact with P.Ivy, I immediately scrub with soap and water, followed by schmooshing Jewelweed all over the area. Because of these precautions, I now coexist more peacefully with this nosy neighbor.

External Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

Keep in mind: for severe rashes, you can take Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Corticosteriods can also be used topically and internally in extreme cases. For less severe, but still annoying, versions of P.Ivy rashes, many soothing remedies exist. Because the rash is hot and moist, we are primarily looking for things that drying and cooling. But mostly we are just looking for things that WORK!

It is worth emphasizing: Itching makes things worse (but it feels so good!!)! It’s hard to resist, and that’s why these anti-itch remedies are helpful…

1. Calamine lotion is probably the most well-known, for good reason, and can be found in any old store. It dries out the rash.

2. Clay is very similar to Calamine in it’s action. It is drying and pulling. You can get fancy and mix the clay with some anti-inflammatory tea for added medicine. Chickweed or Cleavers tea can be a nice anti-itch addition to the clay, or you can mix the clay with Witch Hazel extract. If you apply a loose bandage over the clay, this will slow the drying time, and thus lengthen the pulling time.

3. Yellow Dock leaves. Roll the fresh leaves between your hands to extract the juice, then apply to the rash. Yellow Dock leaf is astringent and anti-itch. It grows prolifically in many areas. In my experience, it brings relief for an hour or so…not the most impressive remedy, but helpful if you are out and about with nothing else.

4. P.Ivy Liniment. Tinctures make for effective P.Ivy liniments because alcohol is drying (any kind of alcohol: grain, cane, rubbing alcohol, etc). I wouldn’t want to use oil/salve on an oozy rash. All the herbs listed below could be used as single tinctures on the rash, but here is a formula that I make specifically for P.Ivy. The results typically last a few hours for me. I have received a lot of positive feedback on this blend:

  • 2 parts Licorice root tincture
  • 1 part Peach leaf tincture
  • 1 part Sassafras root tincture (*Note that this leaves a red hue on your skin)
  • Menthol (1/8 tsp per 4 oz liniment, the menthol crystals dissolve nicely into the liniment)

5. Really hot water. So I know this goes against our goal of finding something drying and cooling, but it feels so darn good and reduces the itching for hours! I will use water that is practically boiling, put it on a washcloth and hold on the rash for as long as I can stand it (about 30 seconds or so). Perhaps I am just burning the proteins in the fatty cells of my epidermis, and thereby countering urushiol’s action? I have no idea. The itching usually does start up again a few hours later, but the relief lasts a very notable amount of time. I have heard that in the long run, using heat is irritating and counters the healing progression. But since the relief is so satisfyingly immediate and long-lasting, I can’t resist.

Internal Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

P.Ivy rashes appear as an oozy “damp-heat”. There are many herbs to address this, with either a tea or tincture. Here are some herbs that can be used alone or in formula:

1. Licorice root (Glycorrhiza glabra)- a strong anti-inflammatory and a potent anti-itch remedy. It clears heat and eliminates toxins like, in this case, urushiol. It is comparative to corticosteriods, because it actually decreases the clearance of cortisol from the body and contains other anti-inflammatory mechanisms. Because of these things, Licorice is a serious contraindication for many folks. Do your research (beyond this blog) and definitely avoid using it with any cardiac meds, diuretics, and many other pharmaceuticals. For the purpose of P.Ivy rashes, I use high doses of Licorice, which should only be taken short term (by everyone, not just those with contraindications). I learned this effective P.Ivy remedy when I apprenticed with Juliet Blankespor*** and was suffering from rash after rash. If this medicine is contraindicated, please know that using licorice topically is very safe, and helps a whole lot.

2. Japanese Honeysuckle flowers (Lonicera japonica)- used for “fire toxicity”, a term which could well define a P.Ivy rash. These flowers are a strong medicine for clearing heat and eliminating toxins. The vine is often flowering during my rash season, so it is convenient to throw them in my tea. This herb should only be used short term.

3. Elder flower (Sambucas canadensis)- a premier diaphoretic, often used in viral infections to help break a fever and bring about sweating. And while it may cause this effect, it is actually a cooling herb. For rashes, it can be used to “course the exterior” or push the rash out. It opens pores and dries dampness. Another flower commonly in season during prime P.Ivy rash time! This herb should only be used short term.

4. Cleavers herb (Galium aparine)- a cooling herb that drains dampness. It is a gentle anti-inflammatory and anti-itch aid. I use the plant in the spring and early summer, when I find it growing abundantly in the woods.

5. Burdock (Arctium lappa)- a cooling medicine to clear heat and transform damp. A supportive alterative/tonic as the body heals. I use the root (though I want to note that the seeds are probably more appropriate for this rash. Like Elder flower, the seeds are a cooling diaphoretic that help to push out rashes. This is fairly new info to me, so I haven’t had the chance to personally experiment with it).

These herbs could be used alone or as a formula. If I have a bothersome rash, I will make a daily quart of tea with something akin to:

  • 2 Tbsp dried Licorice root (decoct)
  • 2 Tbsp dried Burdock root (decoct)
  • a small handful of fresh Cleavers herb (infuse)
  • a small handful of fresh Honeysuckle flowers (infuse)

Again, this would be a short term formulas, used for only a week or two. All of these herbs could also be used in a tincture.

It is possible to find great relief from just applying the topicals listed above, but it is the internal herbs that really put a dent in the rash’s lifespan.

(For instructions on making herbal infusions, decoctions, and tinctures for liniment, refer to Issue #4)

If the rash doesn’t clear up, considering seeking out an acupuncturist. Or seek them out from the start! Chinese medicine can be incredibly effective for P.Ivy rashes.

Common Questions about P.Ivy:

Is this the same plant as Poison Oak?

Yes and no…Poison oak is in the same genus, Toxicodendron diversilobum or T. pubescens. The leaves also grow in threes, but typically have more of an oak leaf shape. As I understand it, T. diversilobum is common in much of western North America and T. pubescens grows mostly in southeastern North America, along with T. radicans. All of these Toxicodendron species contain urushiol oils, however the chemistry of those oils might be slightly different. Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are common names which can be used differently in different areas. The treatments spoken about here should work well for all of the above.

Is P.Ivy rash contagious?

No. If someone with a rash shakes another person’s hand, that will not spread the rash. However, if P.Ivy oils are on that person’s hand, then it is possible to spread the oils and cause a rash. That is not considered contagion, but just a transfer of the irritant in question.

Can the rash spread across my body?

We’re gonna call this answer a “No, BUT…”

The rash occurs where the body came into contact with the plant oils. Now, it may seem like the rash is spreading because it starts in one area, and then slowly creeps to other parts, but rashes can develop more slowly on different parts of the body, or there could be continued exposure by unknowingly touching clothing, tools, pets, or furniture with the oils present. So, if you have a rash on your wrist, and you have washed the area thoroughly, then you touch your leg, it is not possible to spread the rash in this way. However, if your arm came into heavy contact with P.Ivy, and you were unaware and go about touching other parts of your body, it is possible to spread the oils. The oozing from the rash does NOT spread the outbreak. It is only contact with the plant oils that cause a rash where the skin contacted the urushiol.

What should I do if P.Ivy oils get on my clothes?

Take them off and separate them from other clothes. Wash them and then hang in sun. The urushiol oils are very stable and last a long time, but it has shown to degrade in the sun’s UV rays.

*Frank Cook, http://www.plantsandhealers.org/about-frank-cook/

**James Duke, The Green Pharmacy, 1997

***Juliet Blankespor, https://chestnutherbs.com

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