Sunday, February 16, 2014

Everyone's Favorite Poison--Poison Ivy

Winter is proving especially difficult this year.  The cold and relentless snow force thoughts of gardening, or even of being outside, far to the back burner.  Of course, there's one certain plant that will most likely thrive come spring, no matter how horrid the winter.  It might appear as a shrub, or vine, or small sapling, yet the rash it provides to many is frequently the same.  Poison ivy is decidedly unwelcome in any garden and probably in any yard.  Even the scientific name sounds like something you'd rather shoo away than find growing: Toxicodendron radicans.

I've seen this dastardly plant often enough so that it's easy to identify.  Unfortunately, it doesn't always follow the same growth pattern and it's possible to overlook the leaves until you're standing among them.  It produces clusters of 3 leaves, sometimes they are a bit jagged at the edge, and other times they are smooth.  New growth tends to have a deep reddish cast and the fall colors are remarkably striking at times; being a combination or yellow, orange, red, and burgundy all on the same plant.  The flowers are small, whitish green, and difficult to spot.  More often than not, the plant will not produce flowers unless it is able to vine upwards.  The fruits are favored by birds and start out pale green and slowly ripen to a pale milky greenish-white.  Alas, the plant also spreads via runners and can root into the soil wherever a stem touches down. 

Once the plant begins to climb, the overall appearance changes slightly.  The leaves are still in clusters of 3, but the way it vines about makes it appear to be a different plant.  Poison ivy is a tenacious climber and can easily reach the tops of trees or telephone poles.
How does it manage this expert climbing?  Well, it grows small aerial roots that cling to rough surfaces such as bark, wood, or stone. 
Here it is, happily climbing away.
When plants are young, or runners first start to appear in the spring, they look quite a bit like the saplings of trees.  They are especially dangerous at this point as you might not recognize them as poison ivy at all, particularly if they are in the reddish new growth stage.  I almost stepped into this patch without even noticing it was there. 

So, you have this fiend making an appearance at your party and what do you do?  How does one get rid of a rash inducing pest like this?  There are chemical controls, although I've found they have a mixed success rate.  Additionally, even if the plant is dead, the oils that cause the oh so lovely skin rashes do not degrade quickly.  It is still possible to find the oils on plants that are many years dead (I've read that it can be up to 25 years).  Chemical controls work best when leaves are out, but prior to them hardening off during summer--the leaves take on a more waxy appearance once the new growth has stopped growing.  Also, these products seem to work best when the plant also gets a fair amount of sunlight.  I've seen poison ivy in shady locations laugh off herbicides that worked fine on plants growing in sunnier spots.  Mechanical controls seem to be the better option as long as the gardener wears gloves and is willing to immediately wash clothing in extra hot water and soap.  Shoes will also carry the oils, so be careful.  Shovels, rakes, pitchforks, axes, and gas powered machinery are all possibilities.  Be aware, however, that lawnmowers or bush hogs can cut and spray the plant oils about.  Personally, I've found a mixture of herbicides and judicious use of a shovel to be the best method of control (don't think I've ever won the battle, but did manage to keep the plants under control).

Whatever you do, don't set fire to the plants.  The oil can become airborne and deposit itself into eyes, sinus passages, and lungs.

Goats are an excellent all natural control.  They aren't bothered by the oils and find the plants pretty tasty. In fact, a school in Reading, Vermont is using goats to control poison ivy that was creeping into their playground.

Other animals, however, can easily spread the oils.  If your dog or cat wanders into a patch of poison ivy, they might need an immediate bath in warm soapy water.  I remember being told a story about a woman and her beloved Jeep.  Unfortunately, while on a hike with her dog one day, the dog went rambling about through poison ivy.  The dog enjoyed the ride home and managed to deposit the oils all over the fabric seats of the Jeep.  Alas, the Jeep's owner kept contracting poison ivy and couldn't figure out why, until she finally remembered that summer walk.  Eventually, she had to scrub down the interior of the Jeep with hot soapy water and even then was unsure she'd gotten everything safe.  At the time I was told the story she was considering selling the Jeep but was feeling a bit leery about giving someone a special surprise.

So, no matter how cold and snowy or even dry and warm your winter may be, there's a certain unwelcome guest who doesn't mind what the weather throws and will appear reinvigorated come spring.

Recommended Plant:  Abutilon Common Name: Flowering Maple
Ok, I'm cheating a bit here since this is an indoor plant as opposed to tree/shrub/perennial.  But this annoying winter weather needs a bit of bright color to counteract the gloom.  Flowering maples are fairly easy to care for.  The leaves do look similar to a maple but the flower looks completely different.  They like a warm, sunny location and regular watering.  They will not tolerate drying out, but at the same time don't enjoy constantly wet feet.  Some varieties turn a bit gangly and need pruning on occasion while others grow more compactly.  There are many variations in flower color and growth habit.  It's an excellent houseplant addition.

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