Landscaping and Poison Ivy: A Tale We're Itching to Tell (The Final Word Opinion Column)

Seeing red: Beware — even a simple landscaping project can turn toxic in July



Illustration by Chris Reed

At this time of year, I start every day from scratch — literally.

The first thing I feel upon awakening is an itch — intense, insistent, and oh-so-persistent. The raspberry bumps and blisters on my arm and/or leg and/or side (more on that later) are courtesy of one of Mother Nature’s most devilish creations: the malevolent-sounding toxicodendron radicans, otherwise known as poison ivy.

The bane of gardeners, hikers, and the unaware, poison ivy lurks everywhere in our wondrous Hudson Valley. It’s tricky to identify (three leaves are common, but no guarantee) and bears urushiol, the nasty, oily resin that reminds me of the flesh-and-steel dissolving acid blood in the Alien film series. Urushiol penetrates clothes and can be delivered on anything it touches, such as pet fur. I have four cats that go outside, and I live on a patch of land that qualifies as a poison ivy plantation.

So it was with foreboding and rashes aplenty that I watched my new next-door neighbor clearing brush on his property. He was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. A Hazmat suit is in order on such occasions.

That day, my noble neighbor graciously offered to cut down a dead tree on my property — a tree laced with poison ivy vines I thought I’d neutralized (silly me) with weed killer. I accepted. He fired up his chainsaw and...

Let’s pause here to tell some unfun facts about poison ivy:

Less than a millionth of an ounce of urushiol can cause a rash that erupts within 36 hours after contact, leaving you scratching like a hound for two miserable weeks.

You have 15 minutes after contact to wash with soap and cold water before urushiol permanently binds to your skin. My medicine cabinet’s stocked with an ivy league defense that includes Ivy Block and Tecnu scrub, but only the clairvoyant know when their 15-minute window to apply them begins. Remedies include calamine lotion and Epsom salts, but steroids are needed when you’ve really got it bad.

Urushiol remains active on dead plants for up to five years — though samples more than 100 years old have worked their evil ways — and you can’t burn them because the smoke wreaks havoc on lungs and eyes.

Poison ivy is thriving on greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, producing even stronger urushiol.

Back to our story: My good neighbor sliced down the tree and then cut the trunk in half as I held it steady — and received a blast of infected sawdust across my side from armpit to hip. But my eventual suffering was little compared to his. He thought he’d be okay if he bathed in an ivy scrub that evening, but several very hot days later I saw him come home from his National Guard duty clad in heavy fatigues and combat boots.

“That was not a smart move,” he ruefully replied when I asked about the outcome of his brush-clearing activities. He added that while gazing up at a tree with poison ivy vines on it, a drop of rainwater had slipped off a branch, landed on his face, and caused an eruption.

Safe to say, we aren’t itching to work outside again until winter.

» More from writer John Rolfe
» More from The Final Word

 

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