Saturday, July 28, 2012

Poison Ivy

Can you spot the poison ivy in this photo? Anyone who lives in the country or spends time communing with nature learns to recognize the three shiny leaves of poison ivy in the spring when they're the color and sheen of mahogany veneer, but come summer, this menace can be hard to identify.

Poison ivy is a member of the sumac family which also includes poison sumac and poison oak.  It grows in most parts of the United States and can also be found in China, but does not grow in Europe.  By summer the oval, pointed leaflets (only the middle one contains a stem) are a bright, smooth green, slightly hairy underneath.  Mature plants have small greenish flowers in loose clusters, followed by grayish fruits when the leaves turn a dull red in the fall.

The plant grows in a variety of ways. It can keep its stems underground and just send up short erect branches to form a green mat of leaves, often mixed with other vegetation as in the top photo. In other areas it sometimes has long stems above ground, trailing over rocks or scrambling up tree trunks. When it climbs trees, its hairy stems look dead, but those hairs are actually aerial rootlets that help feed the plant.

I suspect most people could tell a horror story or two about this ubiquitous plant – the brother who ate it, the neighbor who ended up in the hospital after burning a pile of pulled plants, the friend who picked it to use in her first flower arrangement for the garden club.

My horror story took place when I was 12.  I went off to summer camp, cried myself to sleep with homesickness the first night and woke up the next morning with my eyes glued shut with poison ivy.  I spent the next several days in the camp infirmary, a grand beginning for a kid who’d never been away from home before.  

Locust Hill had every type of poison ivy when we moved here.  We kept a good supply of calamine lotion or its equivalent in the medicine cabinet as all three small daughters managed to acquire that nightmare rash. Can you remember that first blissful lathering of pink glop on the itching, burning bubbles?  Unfortunately, I can also remember the flaking pink paint chips of calamine that soon dried up and made the itching agony worse than ever.

We spent years trying to eliminate the poison ivy on Locust Hill, but had no success until we acquired a goat.  Comfort, a beautiful Nubian with long velvet ears, adored poison ivy leaves. Like most goats, her stomach resembled a cement mixer, managing to digest tin cans, cigarette butts and stinging nettles as well as poison ivy.

Once Comfort had gobbled up all the poison ivy, we put her in the pasture with the sheep where she gambled around in untethered freedom. Unfortunately she soon discovered that the split-rail fence was a challenging “tight-rope” she could strut across with ease.  The morning I saw her leap gracefully down from the fence into the perennial border and begin eating the flowers, she ceased to be a comfort. 

Our newspaper ad offering a free goat happily found a new home for her and since then we’ve stuck with gentle, well-behaved sheep.  When my elderly flock was recently reduced to two and I asked my readers if anyone had a cheap sheep for sale, I had a delightful response.  Here’s a photo of our new young ewe, Intrepid.  Isn’t she handsome?

If you have poison ivy on your property, getting a goat is a fine solution, provided you keep her on a tether and bring her a bucket of water every day!


  1. Somewhere around 7 or 8 years, my buddy Suzette S. and I tried to see who could get the worst case of poison ivy. When all the skin peeled off the back of my hand, I won!

  2. My problem is near the swingset I'm not sure if it's raspberries...wild strawberries or poison ivy. Any advice?