Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The siblings of itch!

Classic Poison Ivy
(Photo by Jon Sachs)

Jon Young, an amazing mentor in wilderness awareness and exploration, says that when you begin to explore your area, learn all the things that will hurt or kill you first. The reasons are simple, 1) There are fewer things that can hurt us than things that are beneficial or benign. And 2) They can hurt or kill you. Kind of straight forward.

Now, I want to start out by saying that there are things out there that can cause us harm. And, with some knowledge, we can avoid most of them and enjoy being outside safely. Today we are going to explore the big three in plants that can cause us problems: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. The three siblings of itch! There are others, but they are for another time

These three plants can cause a whole range of reactions in people. Some people have little or no reaction, and others can have respiratory issues or break out in blisters. Most folks get an ichy rash. The cause of these reactions is the oil these plants produce called Urshiol Oil. And the best (worst) part is that these plants have the oil year round. So even in winter you can get a reaction.

You can do a pretty good job of avoiding these plants with a little awareness. Start by learning which plants you have in your area. For the most part, Poison Ivy can be found in most places in the United States and southern Canada except for far western states, deserts, and high altitude. Poison ivy can grow in forests, the forest edge, and disturbed soil. It grows as a small bush, along the ground, or as a vine. The leaves of poison ivy are red in early spring. In late spring, the leaves change to a shiny or dark green. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow, and or red.

Poison Oak is found in the western states (California, Oregon, parts of Nevada, and Washington). It has very similar growing habits as poison ivy, although the leaves are rounded like oak tree leaves rather than the jagged edges of the poison ivy leaves. Each leaf of oak and ivy is made up of three leaflets more or less notched at the edges. Two of the leaflets form a pair on opposite sides of the leafstalk, while the third leaflet stands by itself at the tip of the leafstalk. Both poison ivy and oak produce white waxy (non-edible) berries in the fall.

Poison Sumac is found predominately in the southern, southeastern, and mid-atlantic states. Some cases are reported in in the northeast. Poison sumac also looks very different from the other itchy siblings. The key features to notice are large alternate leaves usually with 9-13 entire (non-toothed) leaflets and a red stem (rachis). The leaves are shiny and the red stem is reasonably easy to spot from a distance.

If you think you have come in contact with any of these siblings, wash with cool or warm soapy water as soon as you can. There are some products out there, like Technu, that does a very good job of removing the urshiol oil. Also was the clothes you were wearing when you were out exploring.

One last word of caution. If you burn yard waste, please make sure you are not burning any of the three siblings! Inhaling the smoke from any of these plants can get the oil into your throat and mouth. If this happens and you have a reaction, you will be going to the emergency room to get treatment.

Nature Nugget:
There is a saying regarding the three siblings; "Leaves of three, leave them be". Which does provide some guidance. Except for the following:
1) Poison Sumac has alternate leaves and looks nothing like poison ivy and oak.
2) Several wild berry plants like black raspberry also has three leaves. Another saying adds some knowledge: "If it's hairy, it's a berry".
3) There are other plants such as Virginia Creeper which often gets mistaken as poison ivy. Not every green plant low to the ground is one of the siblings.

Don't let these three siblings stop you from exploring!

Final note:
If you would like to receive this blog as an email, please let me know either here in the comments, email me at, or leave me a facebook message. Also, if you have topics you would like to know more about, let me know.

No comments:

Post a Comment