Question: After venturing into the woods behind my house I soon discovered I had come into contact with poison ivy. Any tips on getting rid of it permanently?
Answer: An unanticipated encounter with poison ivy can lead the allergic victim to many unhappy days of blisters, swelling and extreme itching that will not be soon forgotten. In Southern New Jersey, from the Pinelands to the shore, poison ivy can be found in abundance. The best way to avoid the plant is to know what it looks like and then how to control it so accidental contact does not occur.
Poison ivy grows mostly along uncultivated areas but can invade your ornamental borders also. Birds eat and disperse the seeds which easily germinate. The vines may grow up a tree or grow along the ground and form a ground cover. It grows in a sunny spot as well as deep shade. It also may grow along with other vines which can make it more difficult to recognize.
To identify poison ivy you should look at the leaves. The leaf will have three parts, a center lobe and two lateral lobes. The leaves are 2 to 4 inches long and pointed at the end. It has aerial roots along the stem that give a hairy appearance. Poison ivy will appear different according to the season. In springtime, the leaves are reddish and shiny. After the leaves are all emerged, greenish flowers develop. These turn into the white waxy berries that are noticeable during fall. Fall foliage can be yellow, red or orange.
All parts of this plant can cause an allergic reaction. It is believed 70 percent of people will have some type of reaction to any part of the plant. A chemical called urushiol is released onto the plant's surfaces when it is disturbed or damaged. A person can develop a reaction by indirect contact also. If a garden tool or pet has come in contact with the plant first, and then you secondly, the chemical is transferred. Importantly, burning the plant is not an effective means of disposal as soot particles carry the poisonous oils into the air and can then be inhaled. Individual sensitivity varies but immunity is reduced in all persons through repeated contact.
Two methods of control require persistence and repeated attempts. Pulling out roots is best done when the soil is wet and there are only a few plants. Even when the vines are cut, the rootstock will creep along and produce new plants quickly. Repeated cutting back of the plant to the ground will eventually starve the root system and the plant will die. There are certain herbicides recommended for poison ivy control. They can be applied to the new sprouts from remaining rootlets. This herbicide is most effective if applied to actively growing foliage two weeks on either side of full bloom, in early summer.
Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: