Poison Ivy is the Devil’s Three-Leafed Clover: Anecdotes and Tips from the Garden

I’ve long known of poison ivy.  In the South, as in many places, it’s a fact of outdoor life.  However, it’s always seemed more comfortable to be itself in the hills of North Georgia than anywhere else I’ve been.  Catching sight of the wintry remnants of its presence, when all other foliage has died back, it’s not uncommon to see hairy, creeping brown vines as big around as a strong man’s forearm, strangling a fully grown tree.

Lest you think that I’m maligning an innocent, if ubiquitous weed, allow me to give you a few facts about the poison ivy plant before continuing…


Facts About the Plant

Poison ivy grows everywhere–everywhere–in North America with the exception of the extreme Northwest (Alaska and the Yukon) and the Southwestern United States.  That’s right.  I didn’t miss it when I lived in Albuquerque.  Not a bit.  Here’s why:

You can enjoy the wonderful side effects of this plant during any season simply by coming into contact with a contaminated surface.  This includes a pet’s fur, clothing, camping and gardening equipment, or even other yard waste that has been in contact with the leaves, vines, roots, berries, or flowers of poison ivy.  So even in the dead of winter, you, too, can enjoy the unpleasant contact dermatitis and fluid-filled blisters that often result from such contact.


Care and Handling: Take Care Not to Handle It

My mom has always been particularly susceptible to poison ivy.  Sure enough, if she so much as looked at it sideways, a few hours later, she would sport a jaunty topcoat of Calamine lotion.  It made her look somewhat like a pink, piebald human, because there seemed to be no limit to poison ivy’s inventive and invasive contagion.

Either I’m too mean to be quite so sensitive or simply oblivious to it, because to date, I’ve never actually had to cope with it.  That doesn’t rule it out.  I’m sure I will, someday, so I’m careful to identify it when I’m weeding.  The most practical technique employed to avoid contact involves no poisons whatsoever.  Quite beyond a legitimate objection to the use of herbicides in general, due to their toxicity and the unpleasant implications they hold for the broader ecosystem, you know what will kill poison ivy?  Nothing. Roundup won’t have the slightest effect. Fire won’t bruise its dignity for more than a moment.  And I’m pretty sure atomic weapons are frowned upon when it comes to weed control.

Nope.  You’ve got to pull it up by hand, and make sure you extract as much of the runner root from whence it springs as you possibly can.  Unless of course, you want to come back in ten days and pull up what is essentially the same plant.  Arm yourselves with gloves, preferably leather ones–to hell with what animal rights zealots have to say on this.  Leather is not only a desired material for shoes and gloves, it’s necessary in an ecosystem where most weed species have vicious thorns, tough or woody stems, and grow on runners connecting them to other plants of the same ilk.

In addition to leather gloves, wear a high-collared long-sleeved shirt, the cuffs of which are close fitting and will stay inside your gloves.  I don’t care that it’s hot and humid enough to boil an egg on the driveway.  Just do it. Wear durable, long pants as well.  Jeans are preferable.  Tuck your hair out of the way with a bandana or hat, because the last thing you want to do is unconsciously brush your hair out of your face with a hand that’s just touched poison ivy.

Now that you’re kitted out, get yourself a plastic grocery bag.  Flip it inside out and insert your “weed pulling” hand into it.  Then, gently grasp the poison ivy plant near the base.  Pull slowly and steadily.  The runner vine will come up out of the earth as you do this.  Pulling too aggressively will defeat the purpose of pulling it at all, because the plant is designed to preserve itself by fragmenting.  So what you end up with is the expendable bit and the plant itself lives to make you itch another day.

Once you’ve gotten as much of the plant and runner as you can safely pull from the dirt–don’t worry, you won’t get it all, that runner will eventually snap off–gather plant leaves and runner with your bagged hand in a close ball.  Be careful not to allow contact with your clothing or skin from the runner, because it also contains the volatile botanical oil urushiol, which is the resin that makes you itch.  Carefully flip the bag right-side-out again, twisting it closed around the noxious bundle of weeds.


Growing Conditions Are at Best a Vague Suggestion

Traditional wisdom would have you believe that poison ivy keeps to shady, cool, moist environments like shady roadsides or riverbanks, field margins under protective trees–you get the picture.  What you really need to know is that this is not correct.  Often you’ll experience the joy of causal dermatitis because it was growing exactly where you weren’t looking for it.

My parents have what they refer to euphemistically as a “Freedom Lawn.”  What they mean is that it is, in fact, not really a lawn at all, but a loose ecosystem of weedy plants, clover, moss, and various grass-like organisms that, when viewed as a whole render the impression of a lawn.  My mom notes that it has “something for everyone.” What is the combined result of my parent’s unwillingness to spend vast amounts of time and money on an essentially empty status symbol is also pretty good for the ecosystem.

Because they aren’t obsessed with having an actual grass-only yard, they are further disinclined to use harsh chemicals such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.  Also, they know who Rachel Carson is and have read Silent Spring.  Mom would never allow my dad to use such products–it may well be the only thing she’s willing to throw down about, but I certainly wouldn’t cross her.  So, Freedom Lawn it is–and happily, plenty of birds, small animals, and pretty grass flowers, wild violets, and sweet, white clover blooms are the reward.

Freedom Lawn, however, doesn’t really recognize boundaries.  Much of my work has been removing Freedom Lawn from where it has freely encroached with its freeness into planting beds and landscape islands–clover is persistent and difficult to dislodge in the way limp spaghetti might be, if it grew in your yard.  It’s very free with itself, though really, I don’t mind it anymore than I mind the Johnson Grass that grows in circular mats and will root itself into concrete, metal, or landscape fabric if you give it half a chance.  My mother’s diffidence about returning to her garden provided many half-chances for weeds that might not have taken over so completely otherwise.

So.  Now that you understand my parent’s garden philosophy, enter poison ivy.  It’s a botanical guest that never needed much of a welcome to get nice and comfy in the yard in the first place.  But it has since encroached with a vengeance.  It doesn’t just grow in the shade.  It has made its presence known in the middle of the juniper, clambering up rose trees, and playing amongst monkey grass that’s too bumptious for its own good to begin with.  That’s right–full sun.

Poison Ivy doesn’t care for your carefully guarded store of botanical knowledge.  It does what it wants.  And what it wants is what all of nature wants–to continue doing its thing, make more of itself, and expand to fill the space available.  I’m alright with clover, Johnson Grass, wild violets, even rogue monkey grass to do its thing.  I’ll leave moles to tunnel hummocks into the yard, because they eat grubs.  I’ll let red wasps alone because…they eat grubs.  I leave Alfred, the red ant and his eight-million twin brothers alone because they aerate the soil, and are also tasty treats for birds and other residents of the garden.

But no one eats poison ivy.  It doesn’t actually do anything positive for the rest of the environment.  It’s simply a plant that doesn’t make anyone itch except humans.  So while it isn’t pernicious to other animals, it also isn’t especially useful.  It just spreads.  It’s the Devil’s Three-Leafed Clover.



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