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Speaking of Nature

Avoiding poison ivy requires being alert when taking walks

Sunday, August 4, 2013
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Speaking of Nature


Poison ivy can take many forms, but the result is always the same if you fail to notice it.
Poison ivy can take many forms, but the result is always the same if you fail to notice it.

You know your own backyard. You know where the wasp nest is, where the raspberry bushes are, and where the hole in the fence is hidden. Once you visit a new place, however, you realize that you don’t know where anything is. This finding of new places is something that we humans seem compelled to do, but once in a while we pay a price.

An example of this occurred last year when my nephew Ben came for a visit. We decided to go for a walk in an area that I was familiar with, but for Ben it was completely new. Ben lives up in Maine, where the forests are quite a bit different from those we have down here, so Ben wasn’t keeping his eyes open for one of the greatest party-wreckers of them all — poison ivy.

Maine does have poison ivy, but not nearly as much as we have. I’m sure that Ben has learned to avoid certain key places in his normal sphere of influence, but he had to learn a new rule if he wanted to avoid the discomfort of making a mistake. The new rule is simple: Keep your eyes open all the time!

Poison ivy is a tricky plant to deal with because it can take several forms. In coastal areas, where the plants grow in almost pure sand, poison ivy can grow as large as a lilac bush. In the woods, it grows in the form of thick, “hairy” vines that cling to trees. But the most common form of poison ivy is the low creeper that grows in open areas with poor soil.

Sets of three

The leaves of poison ivy can also take many different forms: matte green or shiny reddish-green, with smooth or coarsely toothed edges. There is always one characteristic that remains constant, however: The leaves always occur in sets of three.

I have included a photograph of poison ivy growing in two different places. In the main image, you see the plant growing in the shade. Some of the leaves have smooth edges, while others have teeth. The confusing thing is that the leaves don’t always have the same number of teeth in the same places. The inset shows poison ivy growing in the sun. Very different in appearance, but with the same unpleasant consequences if it goes unnoticed.

As we all know, it is the sap of the poison ivy plant that causes painful, itchy blisters to form on your skin. More specifically, it is a chemical called urushiol that gets onto your skin and then makes the small blood vessels start to leak fluid, causing blistering. The blisters themselves do not spread more poison ivy, but the urushiol may take time so soak into your skin and so it may cause new blisters to appear as time goes by. You may also get urushiol in the fabric of your clothing and be repeatedly exposed to urushiol every time you put a particular garment on.

Ben is coming for a visit again in about at week, so since I was preparing a safety briefing for him, I’ll just go ahead and share it with you as well. 1) Keep your eyes open! 2) If you do walk in poison ivy, wash your feet with lots of soapy water ASAP. 3) If you get the poison ivy rash, apply ice to the affected area to reduce the blistering, but be prepared to deal with itching for about a week.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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