There are quite a few plants that can be harmful to people upon contact. The chemical found in these plants can cause skin inflammation, itching rashes, and blisters.
The most common poisonous plants are:
- Poison Ivy
- Poison Oak
- Poison Sumac
These plants can present a real danger to people who work or pursue recreation outdoors.
Hikers, gardeners, groundskeepers and others who come in contact with plants on a regular basis are at risk. Firefighters and forestry workers are especially at risk because inhaling fumes from burning poisonous plants can cause severe allergic reactions.
In this article, we will look at poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. We will share valuable information to help you identify and avoid them. We will also provide information on removing these potentially dangerous plants from your home landscape. Read on to learn more.
Poisonous Plants Are Found Across The United States
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans or Rhus radicans) grows abundantly east of the US Rocky Mountains. Along the west coast, you will find a similar plant, Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) in great abundance. In the southern states, poison sumac vines (Toxicodendron vernix) adorn the swamplands.
All of these plants contain a liquid sap called urushiol which causes a severe allergic reaction in most humans. Either direct contact with plants containing this substance or contact with animals or surfaces that have been exposed can cause a red, itchy rash and be hard to get rid of. The more often you are exposed, the more severe your reaction will be.
How Can You Recognize Poisonous Plants?
Poison oak, ivy, and sumac grow best in sheltered settings so that you will encounter them more frequently in the woods than in the open; however, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Birds can carry the berries to other settings.
If the berries happen to take root along a fence row or against the side of a building or beside a large tree, conditions may be just right for growth. Additionally, if you live in a new development, there may be poison plant roots lurking beneath your lawn!
Poison ivy and poison oak sometimes share one similarity in appearance. Their leaves tend to grow in clusters of three, and you can remember this with the adage “Leaves of three, let it be!”
This is a good basic rule, but be advised it is not entirely foolproof. The number of leaves per cluster may vary depending upon the species of poison oak or ivy. There is, even more, variation when it comes to poison sumac. Its leaves grow in a feather-like formation in varying numbers ranging from seven to thirteen per grouping.
Luckily, all three of these types of plants have other traits you can watch for to help you identify and avoid them.
#1 – Poison Ivy Comes In Several Varieties
This plant spreads through seed distribution and root spread.
Eastern poison ivy grows as a vine. It typically presents three leaves per stem. These are shiny green throughout most of the year and bright red in the autumn. The vine, itself, is usually ropelike with a hairy surface.
Western poison ivy is more bush or shrub-like. It also displays clusters of three shiny leaves that may turn colors in the fall.
Both varieties small have flowers in green or yellow during the spring and summer. The flowers grow on stalks in clusters of five. They become grayish, amber, yellow or green berries in the fall. Over 50 types of birds eat these berries.
Leaf shapes may vary from one type of plant to another. Some look rather like a maple leaf, while others are tear-drop or oval shaped. The leaves may or may not be hairy. Some are smooth-edged, while others have lobed or toothed margins.
#2 – Poison Oak Comes In Several Variations
Like poison ivy, poison oak may grow as a vine or as a shrub. Its leaves are typically arranged in clusters of three, and they are usually shaped like the leaves of an oak tree. Poison oak may display green or yellow flowers which become green, yellow or white berries in autumn.
#3 – Poison Sumac Always Grows As A Shrub Or Bush With Long Fronds Of Leaves
You may encounter some accounts of “poison sumac vine,” but these are very likely to be cases of mistaken identity. Poison sumac is a bush. It can grow very tall and may be considered a poison sumac tree by some, but it is never a vine.
Each frond or stem of poison sumac may have between seven and thirteen oblong leaves (always an odd number) symmetrically arranged in pairs with one lone leaf making up the tip of the frond. The leaves are green throughout most of the year and turn from yellow to red gradually in the fall. The bushes may produce glossy cream-colored or yellow berries. [source]
How to Identify Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac
What Is the Difference Between Sumac and Poison Sumac?
There is also a non-poison sumac that looks quite a bit like poison sumac but has a few important differences. A regular sumac shrub has very different seeds from its poisonous cousin. The seeds of a non-poisonous sumac grow as a red, feathery seed-tuft. The seeds are packed tightly inside of the tuft, as opposed to the clusters of berries found on poison sumac.
Also, the harmless sumac shrub grows in a broader variety of settings than the poison sumac. Some consider the harmless sumac invasive because it can thrive almost anywhere. You’ll find the poison sumac almost entirely in swampy settings.
How Can You Be Sure?
You really can’t. It’s always best to follow a policy of “look-don’t-touch” and heed the “leaves-of-three” rule. This may prevent you from touching some harmless plants, but it will also help you avoid touching quite a few poisonous plants.
When in the woods, keep to paths and avoid touching plants unless you are certain of their identity. Wear gloves and avoid rubbing your eyes or touching your face when out in nature. Simple precautions such as these can prevent transferring urushiol and other irritants to sensitive areas of skin.
How To Get Rid Of Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac and Poison Oak Plants
If you have poison ivy, oak or sumac growing on your property, you will naturally want to get rid of it. Simply avoiding it is not a solution because it is a weed. It spreads far and wide very quickly.
Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to control or get rid of poison ivy plants. If you have a large property and lots of poison oak, sumac or ivy, you may not be able to get rid of the plants entirely, but you can control them. Here are a few of the top methods.
Poison Ivy Control: Hiring A Removal Service
If you have a big problem in terms of lots of poison plants or just one huge, very old one you may want to hire a professional service. There are lots of advantages to this, not the least of which is you avoiding all personal contact with poison oak, poison sumac or poison ivy plants. You also have some guarantee that the job will be done correctly. [source]
5 Things To Keep In Mind When Hiring A “Poison Plant Removal” Service:
- If you think you may want to use a service, call and ask for an inspection and estimate first before you try anything else. If you wage battle against your poison ivy on your own and then call a service, you’ll make it harder for the contractor to find the poison plants!
- Prioritize your problem plants. If you have several stands of poison ivy, oak or sumac, have the contractor work on the worst and most problematic one first. If he or she does a good job, move forward to the other areas.
- Let the contractor know whether you prefer hand removal, use of chemical herbicides or a combination of the two.
- If the contractor says covering poison ivy, sumac or oak with soil will kill them, don’t believe it. These plants will grow right through the soil.
- Be prepared to pay well for these potentially dangerous services. Typically, poison ivy removal cost falls somewhere between that of standard landscaping services and tree trimming and removal services.
Video: Poison Ivy Removal
Goats – The Best Way To Get Rid Of Poison Ivy Plants Without Chemicals
One way to keep poison ivy at bay on your property is to keep goats. Interestingly, goats love to eat poison ivy, oak, and sumac and doing so has no ill effect on them. Nor does it negatively affect the milk of dairy goats or the meat of meat goats. Just be careful about handling the goats after they have been grazing on these plants. There may be urushiol on their coats. [source]
If you don’t want to or can’t keep goats, you can sometimes rent them to mow your poison plants and other undesirable weeds. The big advantage of using this method is you don’t have to:
- Do the work
- Risk exposure to the plants
Goats can keep poison plants under control, in the short term. In the long term, with regular grazing, the roots will die. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac will not tolerate continuous mowing, cutting or tilling. If the plants are cut off at ground level for an extended period of time (several years), the roots will die.
Video: Goats As A Solution To A Poison Ivy Problem
Poison Ivy Treatment: Pull It Up By The Roots
The most common and successful way to get rid of poison ivy and other poison plants altogether is to pull them up by the roots. If you have young plants and vines, this can be relatively easy after a rain when the ground is still damp. Young plants have fairly shallow roots, and you can pull them by hand or use a pair of garden forks to lift them out of the ground.
Older plants can have thick trunks and deep roots. If they are climbing vines, you will have the challenge of untangling them from the trees or structures that support them. For mature plants, you’ll have to dig deep to get the whole root. You may even need to use a tractor or winch to pull up deep roots.
Whether your plants are young or mature, be sure to check back frequently and spray, cut or pull up any new sprouts. If you miss only a little bit of root, a new plant will grow.
Be Prepared – Be Careful
When digging and cutting, be careful handling every part of the plant. The urushiol is present in the leaves, flowers, berries, stems, trunk, and roots. When you cut or crush the plant or the roots, the sap will flow, and you can get a nasty skin rash or blisters if you are exposed. Follow these precautions to protect yourself and avoid experiencing the symptoms of poison ivy: [source]
- Wear goggles to protect your eyes and a breathing mask to avoid inhaling fine particles of dust, shredded plant matter and plant oil droplets.
- Keep your skin properly covered with long sleeves, long pants (double layers).
- Wear boots and gloves. It’s best to wear a pair of cotton gloves next to your skin and a pair of long rubber gloves over them. Alternately, you might want to wear work gloves over rubber gloves to keep them from tearing.
- Use duct tape to tape your sleeves to your gloves and your pants legs to your boots to prevent any skin exposure.
- Cover your head.
- Be careful not to touch your face or wipe your face with your sleeve while you are working.
Video: How to Clear Poison Ivy
Use The Right Tools For The Job
Prepare your tools in advance so you will not need to stop in the middle of the project to maintain them. The chainsaw should have a new chain, properly adjusted and well-oiled. The shears, pruning saws and other implements should be sharp.
Don’t use a weed eater! It will throw sap and tiny bits of the plant all over causing a contamination problem you will never be able to get rid of. Urushiol remains hazardous on surfaces for five years.
After use clean your tools thoroughly. Wash them with dish soap and cold water outdoors. Wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.
Dispose of the Plants Properly
Have plenty of heavy duty plastic trash bags on hand to bag up your debris as you go. Double bag the poisonous brush and seal the bags tightly before placing them out for trash collection or taking them to the dump. You may want to label the bags to prevent anyone accidentally coming in contact with the contents.
Never burn poison sumac, oak or ivy. The fumes will carry the urushiol into the air and can sicken people for miles.
Clean Yourself Up Promptly
You may want to wear old clothes and boots you can just throw away when you are finished. Washing your clothing could contaminate the inside of your washer. Your boots will surely be covered with sap.
Whether you decide to clean your clothes or toss them, be careful taking them off. Avoid skin contact with your outer garments. Shower (don’t bathe) immediately in cool water. Wash with Tecnu (Poison Oak and Ivy Skin Cleanser) to neutralize any urushiol that might have made its way to your skin.
Using Chemicals To Kill Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac and Poison Oak
Some homeowners opt for the chemical route to kill or control poison ivy. Below you’ll find several commercial chemical products along with some “homemade” poison ivy killers.
Ortho VS. Roundup Poison Ivy Killer
If all else fails, you may elect to use Roundup, Ortho or a similar herbicide for poison sumac, ivy, oak and other poisonous plants. The main active ingredients in standard herbicides are:
- Glyphosate – This is the main active ingredient in Roundup products.
- Triclopyr – This is the main active ingredient in Ortho products.
When it comes to which is better (Ortho vs. Roundup poison ivy killer) consider the fact that according to the University of Georgia Agricultural Extension, Triclopyr may be a bit more effective against poison ivy, oak or sumac than Glyphosate. While Roundup poison ivy killer does contain a small amount of Triclopyr, it is the only active ingredient in the Ortho product. [source]
One downside of all herbicides is that they are very detrimental to the immediate environment, the water table and you. Herbicides are also not picky about what they kill. If you are not careful, you will end up killing plants you want along with the poisonous plants.
No matter which herbicide you choose, you must:
- Read the instructions and mix and apply the product accordingly.
- Wear long sleeves, pants, goggles, a breathing mask, and gloves while applying.
- Use the minimum amount needed for effectiveness.
- Use the right equipment (a tank sprayer, spray bottle or paintbrush).
- Apply on a still, dry, sunny day when the forecast calls for NO RAIN for at least 24 hours.
- Apply in the spring or summer when the poisonous plants are fully leafed.
- Keep children and pets away from treated areas for 24 hours.
- Store and dispose of herbicides per handling and packaging instructions.
For plants growing independently, spray all surfaces lightly and evenly. If the plants you are attempting to eradicate are growing against or climbing up a structure, spray very heavily to be sure of covering all surfaces.
If you are attempting to kill a vine growing up a young tree, you may want to paint the herbicide onto the poisonous plant carefully to avoid harming the tree. If the tree is mature and has thick, coarse brown bark, you needn’t be concerned.
If the ivy has grown high up into the leaves of a tall tree, cut the vine off about 2 feet from the ground. Spray the vine that remains in the ground with a standard solution of herbicide, and paint the cut stub with a full strength concentrate. You must do this within two days of cutting the vine.
Even though commercial herbicides often guarantee complete eradication with one application, it’s a good idea to check back and treat re-growth as needed.
Get Rid Of Poison Ivy Plants With Clorox or Bleach
An inexpensive homemade alternative to herbicides is plain bleach and a cheap spray bottle. Before using this alternative, keep in mind that bleach is a potentially dangerous chemical, which can also destroy any garment you may be wearing when you apply it.
Follow these steps to kill poison ivy, oak or sumac with bleach:
- Choose a still, dry, sunny day when no rain is in the forecast for at least 24 hours.
- Pour the bleach into the spray bottle and screw the lid on tightly to prevent leaks.
- Wear an old, long-sleeved shirt and pants you don’t care about. Protect your skin and avoid damaging good clothes.
- Wear goggles, a breathing mask, and rubber or latex gloves.
- Spray the stems and leaves of the poisonous plant liberally. Avoid spraying desirable plants and grass.
- The “kill” may require several applications. Check back frequently to spray new growth if it appears.
Like the vinegar solution, this method works by killing off the foliage of poison ivy, oak or sumac and eventually starving the roots because the plant will not be able to perform photosynthesis without leaves.
While using bleach can be effective at killing poisonous plants and other weeds, it does have some definite downsides. You must be careful to protect your skin, eyes and nasal passages when spraying bleach. Repeated use will cause a buildup of bleach disrupting the pH levels of the soil as it breaks down into salt with the passage of time.
How To Get Rid Of Poison Ivy Plants With Vinegar, Salt and Dish Soap
You can make a powerful homemade herbicide using a gallon of white vinegar, a cup of table salt (not Epsom salt) and a tablespoonful of dish soap.
Apply this mixture in the same way you would apply a commercial herbicide or bleach, except you wouldn‘t have to wear a hazmat suit! (You will want to wear long sleeves, pants, and solid shoes or boots to prevent contact with poisonous plants.)
Remember, if you plan to plant anything in the place of the poison plants, your application of table salt to the soil may prove problematic. Table salt will leach the soil of its nutrients. The soil will need amendments or you can simply establish a raised bed garden over it.
Many people have had success with this; however, it can take quite a few applications. If you plan to till the soil after the poison ivy has died, be very careful. The roots (even dead ones) contain active urushiol for up to five years.
How To Stop Poison Ivy From Growing Back
Whether you engage goats or dig up poison plants, you can treat poison ivy and prevent having roots grow back by smothering them. To do this, you would use the same concept as you would when preparing a location for a raised bed garden.
Cover the entire area with a thick layer of cardboard and/or newspaper and cover this barrier with mulch and compost. This will smother any lingering roots and prevent poison plants from growing back.
Some sources say that mulching alone is enough, but this is doubtful. These poisonous plants are vigorous, hardy weeds. They will have little trouble growing through the mulch in search of sunlight. It’s best to establish a solid barrier first before applying mulch.
If you plan to remove the “smothering covering,” do not do it for 5+ years. Remember, the urushiol will remain potent for at least that long. The better plan would be to plant a new crop of something that is not poisonous in your newly cleared location and leave the barrier in place.
Can You Get Poison Ivy From Mowing Over Poison Ivy?
For a very small amount of poison ivy in the lawn, you could just keep the area well mowed at all times after the plants have been carefully cut down to ground level. You should not mow over standing plants.
Just as using a weed eater will toss bits of the plant and oil around, so will mowing. This can cause contact dermatitis and could even cause airway and lung irritation if you happen to inhale the oils in the air or the fine particles of the plant.
Cut the plants back by hand or have goats eat them first. As with continuous grazing, frequent mowing will eventually kill the roots by depriving them of the benefits of photosynthesis.
When you initially cut back the tall plants, be sure to take proper precautions for protecting your skin, clean your tools and dispose of the brush correctly.
What Kills Poison Ivy The Fastest?
Spraying with herbicide, bleach or a vinegar mixture will get quick results, but you will probably need to check back frequently and may need to reapply your choice of product to new growth.
Cutting back and/or digging up poisonous plants can be a difficult, risky and time-consuming job, but it will yield more permanent results. You may have to dig up new growth, mow it or use vinegar, bleach or herbicide to quell it.
Mowing or using goats involves an ongoing commitment to keeping the poisonous plants short so they cannot grow.
Hiring a service to handle your poison ivy, oak or sumac problem is a safe and carefree (but potentially costly) way to achieve the results as soon as the service can get to you. The company may need to come back several times to make sure the job is complete.
The bottom line is – no matter how quickly your poison ivy plants are killed, any urushiol remaining in the soil or the surrounding area could be an irritant for as long as 5 years. None of the removal methods described in this article is a one-off. They’ll all require a bit of persistence for permanent results.
No matter how you get rid of any poison sumac, ivy or oak plants on your property, always exercise caution when cutting, digging, spraying, mowing or even covering them with a physical barrier.
Protect your skin and wash thoroughly with cool water and a product such as Tecnu or Ivy-Block immediately afterward. If any urushiol has gotten on your skin, a thorough washing within 5 minutes of contact will neutralize and remove it.
Remember urushiol oil can transfer from other surfaces. Be sure to clean camping equipment, gardening equipment, and other items that might come in contact with poisonous plants immediately after use. Bathe your dog after a hike in the woods. Clean your tack and bathe your horse after a trail ride.
If you do happen to develop a poison ivy rash, keep the area clean and treat with an over-the-counter anti-itch cream or gel. The rash should improve daily and resolve within week-to-ten days. If the rash gets worse, or other symptoms develop seek medical assistance immediately. If you have trouble swallowing or breathing, you should call 9/11 or go to the nearest emergency room. [source]
Take Care To Avoid Contact With Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac
An outdoor life is a rich and enjoyable life, but it’s important to understand that some things in nature can hurt you. Being able to identify and avoid them is an important part of enjoying the great outdoors.
We hope the information presented here will be helpful to you in identifying, avoiding and getting rid of the poison ivy vine, poison oak, and poison sumac. [source]