Poison Ivy ( Toxicodendron radicans): The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Please welcome another guest blogger, Chris Madden of Upstream Weeds. He is our resident staff farmer/scientist funded through the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation. Please enjoy as he removes the mystery behind our region's most toxic plant. Please welcome Chris Madden!


If you’ve been outside lately, here’s an anecdote to remember this time of year: Leaves of three, let it be! Yes, I am talking about poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans; and from what Dan and I have been seeing in the lots, It’s that time. And all the rain has just helped it right along. Peak time for poison ivy all across North America, and the Omaha area is no exception.

Before I get any further, first some symptoms in case I am too late and you think you need to know if you already have it … stat:

·       Primarily a rash, and it can be quite nasty. This is a clinical allergic reaction. Think something like chicken pox, but itchier. There will be some swelling and redness, but the itching will be MADDENING, and the rash can even blister for those who are sensitive.

So, what do you do?

·       RINSE! With WARM water for several minutes – really, the experts say about 30 minutes. But, this method works. Basically, you are flushing the toxins out of your skin, and it can take awhile depending on how long they have taken to absorb.

·       Cool icepacks help relieve the itching, I know this very well.

·       I tried an oatmeal bath once for a particularly bad case I got … everywhere. I worked well and my skin was amazingly soft afterward.

·       Or, try washing the area with alcohol. Some people have found relief this way too.

·       There are many commercial topical ointments available that work to varying degrees; however, I cannot recommend any one over the others. We use Calamine lotion at my house.

·       Here’s a clever one - many antihistamines will help with the itching, as well.

·       You can also try using degreasers and detergents for help when washing, many say they speed up the process; but be careful, you don’t want to get a chemical burn on top of a poison ivy rash.

·       Most importantly, feel free to call a doctor/dermatologist – they are the pro’s. Some people can have terrible allergic reactions, and it can be painful and/or harmful– not just ungodly annoying.

·       The good news, if you can call it that, is that if you do nothing at all and just suffer through; it will only last one to three weeks tops. Again, it’s the itching that’s the hard part.



So, what does it look like? What should you be looking for?

·       First of all, it’s a climbing vine that you will find on and around trees, especially along neglected tree lines and overgrown fences. It can also grow more “shrub-like”, but around Omaha we see it more on the ground and vining lower in the trees, as seen in the photographs below.



·       Next, as I you’ve probably heard, “Leaves of 3 …”. Technically, we call this trifoliate. Poison Ivy has three leaves that stem out from one place. These three-leaf clusters are usually alternate on the ivy vine, as the clusters are not directly opposite of each other on the vine. Note the trifoliate leaf-structure within the photograph below.


·       It’s a perennial meaning it

comes back each year, and also

a deciduous plant, which

means it loses its leaves each

fall. The leaves usually turn a

pretty red color, to its itchy