Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Leaves of Three

by Suzanne DeJohn

Don't let this delicate little shoot fool you -- it's poison ivy and it's loaded with urushiol, the oil that causes the itchy rash.
Springtime in the South -- when gardeners' thoughts turn to tulips and trilliums, bluebirds and bluebells. And for some of us, poison ivy. If you've ever had to endure the maddeningly itchy rash, you're not alone. Four out of five people develop skin lesions upon exposure to poison ivy, or more specifically to urushiol (oo-roo-shee-all), the oil contained in the sap. Approximately 350,000 cases of poison ivy-related dermatitis are reported each year. (I don't know about you but I get poison ivy every summer and I've never reported it to anyone except my long-suffering husband, so I'm betting that the number of actual cases is much, much higher.) On the misery index, poison ivy rivals toothaches and long lines at the DMV.

Identifying Poison Ivy

"Leaves of three, let it be" is the easiest way to remember how to identify this plant, but it's not foolproof. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) leaves usually have three leaflets. However, occasionally they have five and sometimes up to nine leaflets. The leaves are relatively shiny and smooth (as opposed to wrinkled raspberry leaves), and the margins are usually smooth or slightly lobed (as opposed to deeply lobed oak leaves or serrated rose leaves). The plants may take the form of a woody vine, a trailing ground cover, or a free-standing shrub so you'll need to look up, down, and all around.

First Aid

If you know you've been exposed, there's no time to waste in treating the area -- urushiol can penetrate the skin in minutes. Unfortunately, resources offer conflicting information on treatment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site ( suggests removing contaminated clothing and cleansing the skin with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Then wash skin with water only. Avoid soap at this point because the soap can pick up the oil and spread it around. After washing with alcohol and plain water, you can go ahead and shower with soap. Wipe down tools with rubbing alcohol and launder clothing. The National Park Service Public Health Program (, on the other hand, suggests avoiding alcohol because it will spread the urushiol, and instead suggests washing with soap and cold water (cold water because hot water will open the skin's pores, allowing the urushiol to enter). With some hundreds of thousands of cases of poison ivy reported each year, and likely millions of unreported ones, you'd think researchers would have a definitive answer on something as simple as the alcohol vs. soap question. But I suppose we'll each have to figure out what works best. Keep a stash of rubbing alcohol, soap, or purchased poison ivy treatment and some disposable gloves with your gardening supplies for poison ivy triage. If you can do the initial washing outdoors, you'll avoid bringing the oil into the house. Of course, the practicality of this will depend on how much clothing you need to remove and/or the proximity of your neighbors.
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