It's spring cleaning time in the garden and May is probably the busiest month when it comes to clearing out overgrown shrubs, tearing down vines and moving plants.
That's why it's important to beware of poison ivy. You never know where it may be lurking.
Poison ivy, or rhus radicans, contain urushiol oil, which is basically the sap from the plant. Poison oak and poison sumac also contain urushiol oil and 80 to 90 percent of adults are allergic or sensitive to the effects of this sap coming in contact with the skin.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the oil is released when plant parts are bruised, damaged or burned. The reaction caused by the oil to those who are sensitive is called contact dermatitis and manifests itself as a red, itchy rash with bumps and blisters. Although over the counter salves and creams can usually take care of an outbreak, severe cases should be treated by a doctor. When attempting to eradicate the plant from the landscape, it should never, ever be burned as the allergens can be inhaled and can irritate the lungs.
But that's not all. Urushiol oil is non-volatile. This means it does not evaporate or dissipate over time.If you were wearing gloves and long sleeves when you pulled poison ivy vines from your fence last season, the oil on those clothes is still active and can cause a reaction a year later.
Poison ivy wasn't always a gardener's enemy. According to historical accounts, when the plant was first discovered by explorers in the early 1600s, it was thought that the attractive leaves and small berries that are first pale green and then turn creamy white was worth having in the garden, even if it did cause a bit of discomfort.
Early physicians deduced that a plant causing that much distress also must have healing powers, and for a while urushiol oil was considered a treatment for, of all things, skin sores. Basically once the rash and blisters healed the offending sore was usually gone as well. Don't try this at home, but heavily diluted tonics made with urushiol oil was believed to relieve fevers and swollen glands. Of course, you also have to get past the stomach and colon irritation caused by ingesting the poisonous sap.
The best way to tell if you have poison ivy in your yard is to remember a couple old adages, ''Leaves of three, let it be,'' and ''Berries white, run in fright.'' But there are better ways of identification than just assuming every three-leafed vine you come across is poison ivy.
Poison ivy consists of three leaflets at the end of a long stem. The leaves grow alternate from each other. This means along the stem will be a leaf, then a space, then another leaf on the other side, then another space you get the idea. The middle leaflet (terminal) is larger than the two outer leaflets (lateral). The terminal leaf usually has a smaller stem while the lateral leaves seem to have no stem of their own and grow directly from the main stem. The leaves also appear darker and a bit waxy-looking on top and lighter and fuzzier underneath. In the fall, the leaves turn bright red but sometimes new growth in the spring can appear red as well.
As mentioned, the berries turn from green in spring to creamy white and appear translucent. The berries will generally remain on the plant all winter. If you see an animal eating the leaves, don't assume it's not poison ivy. This plant is not poisonous to all animals.
If you think you've come in contact with poison ivy, wash the exposed skin as soon as possible with undiluted dishwashing soap. Any clothing that was exposed should be washed separately in hot water with detergent.
Keep in mind that when your dogs and cats wander through the fields and forests, they can bring the oil home on their coats as well.