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The green of summer feels great. All the plants are in full go, and fresh veggies are coming out of the garden. Berries are stocked at the you-pick-‘em farms, and butterflies and bees are flittering. It might be a little hot, but it seems like all the world is right. Then, on a hike like any other, a leg brushes up against some poison ivy, and things go askew.
Poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac can quickly dampen a flying spirit and cause a month of the summer to be mixed up in skin irritations and lotions. Getting a rash from any of these plants, which have a common offending component called urushiol, leads to itching so intensely that it feels painful. Urushiol can even reach our skin via airborne specks.
The best way to avoid getting the itch is to give the plants a wide berth, and the only way for us to do that is knowing what they look like.
Poison ivy can sometimes be a nightmare to identify because it is a bit of a shapeshifter. It can be a vine, or it can be a bush. It can have green leaves, or reddish and yellowish leaves. The leaves can have widely varying edges as well, sometimes smooth and other times jagged.
However, what all poison ivy plants have in common is that their leaves come in groups of three, and those three leaves will all come to a point at the end, as opposed to being rounded or lobed. Additionally, the changes in leaf color tend to be seasonal, with reds and oranges being in springtime, green being in summer, and back to reds and oranges in the fall.
Because many plants have leaves of three, other characteristics to help identify poison ivy is that mature vines appear hairy due to aerial roots (Note: While the leaves drop in winter, the vines can still give us a rash) and, in the fall, distinct white berries form on the plants. As far as the leaves, the middle leaf of the trio has a noticeably longer stem as well.
Like poison ivy, poison oak has leaves of three, though it has been known to have groups of up to seven, and it can grow as either a vine or shrub. It gets its name because poison oak leaves resemble the leaves of young oak saplings sprouting up. In the case of poison oak, the three leaves connect to a single stem with the side leaves alternating up it rather than being directly across from one another.
Luckily, poison oak is less common than poison ivy, which grows everywhere in the US except California, Alaska, and Hawaii. Poison oak is more or less relegated the Pacific Coast or the Southeast. It, too, gets clusters of white berries (or greenish-yellowish) in the fall.
Even less common than poison oak, poison sumac is prone to boggy areas in the Southeast and occasionally the Northeast. It grows as a shrub or small tree and has between seven and thirteen leaves per stem. The stems can have a reddish appearance, and the leaves are green in the summer and turn yellow to red in the fall. Sumac, too, has clusters of green berries that turn white in autumn.
Common (and Harmless) Lookalikes
Some plants are commonly mistaken for poison ivy or oak, so it’s good to be familiar with them as well. Virginia creeper looks just like poison ivy and is often in the same location, but it has leaf groups of five. Wild raspberry and blackberry vines can look almost identical to poison ivy, but they’ll have thorns to distinguish them. Neither poison ivy nor poison oak have thorns. Hog peanuts have leaves of three but are lighter in appearance than poison ivy, have ubiquitously smooth leaves, and are notably daintier. Box elder is another lookalike, and it has a much shrubbier look about it than does poison ivy. As well, box elders have opposite leaves rather than alternate.
Dealing with the Rash
Unfortunately, no matter how careful we are, sometimes accidents happen, and the urushiol gets the better of us. When that day comes, it’s nice to know that there are some natural remedies (or soothers) available to us.
- A baking soda paste (three-to-one with water) relieves itching and helps to dry out the rash.
- Apple cider vinegar also relieves itching and helps to pull toxins out of the skin’s pores.
- An oatmeal paste (cook the oatmeal very thick and apply it while warm but not hot) can help dry the rash out.
- Jewelweed, often growing near poison ivy, is a natural remedy as well. Just crush the stalk and get the juices from it, applying the juice to suspect areas of infection.
As a last comforting word, a good thing to know for those infected (or the loved ones of those infected) is that the rash is not contagious. Once the initial urushiol has been washed away, the resulting rashes can’t spread to others. The blisters do not have the chemical in them. So, in the case of having poison ivy, at least getting some hugs and comforting is still an option.
Lead Image Source: Pixabay