“Leaflets three, let it be; berries white, a poisonous sight.”
Even though the leaves are beginning to turn color as autumn creeps up on us, the leaves of Taxicodendron Radicans, aka poison ivy, berries, stems, vines and roots all dispense urushiol oil that spreads so easily and itches so badly. Old-timers found their own remedies for a close encounter with this plant. Some made poultices of crushed peach tree leaves, ragweed or red oak; others used the juice of a green tomato or milkweed. A few advised the highly dangerous and possibly fatal practice of eating some of the vine or leaves to develop immunity. Jewelweed, another popular remedy for poison ivy and other itchy things that get on and under your skin, often grows close to poison ivy, which is quite handy.
Other pioneer remedies for poison ivy included: making a paste of baking soda and water or peroxide, buttermilk smeared on the spots, or the leaves of mullein, goldenrod, ironweed or live-forever cooked into a tea and put on the affected places, a poultice of catnip leaves mixed with olive oil, washing with cider vinegar, fresh cow cream mixed with gunpowder, epsom salts bath, or bleach applied directly to the bumps.
Newer folklore suggests rubbing the inside of a banana peel on the itchy places, or crushing and rubbing watermelon on the spots, using the rind to rub it in. can stop the itching. A neighbor recommended bathing with lye soap after being in the woods to wash away any potential brush with the pesky vine.
Do the old remedies work? I can’t say since I have never tried them. In pioneer times people did what they could when there was no alternative. Today the best course of action is to see your doctor and follow his or her medical advice for treating a case of poison ivy.
The worst case of poison ivy I ever had was in the winter. We had been burning old pieces of firewood and evidently there were bits of dried ivy vine attached to the logs. My face broke out and swelled until my eyes were little slits. “You’ve been burning poison ivy,” my doctor said. I protested that we certainly had not. He explained that even small pieces of dried vine clinging to the wood could release urushiol oil into the smoke, and from the smoke to my skin. Even the dead plant, he said, can be potent for up to five years.
I did not have a case for years but on a trip to England last year I brought back a light case of the itches. I did not realize that poison ivy grew in England but I learned that it was brought there as an exotic vine for gardens because of its colorful red leaves in the fall. It escaped from gardens into the English countryside. I suppose there was enough change in the plant in its new environment for me to be susceptible once again.
According to folklore, you can ward off poison ivy by wearing metal around your neck, ankles and wrists. Wearing turpentine around wrists and ankles will also supposedly protect you from the plant, and also from ticks and chiggers.
Some other sayings might help to identify this troublesome plant: “If butterflies land there, don’t put your hand there;” “Hairy vine, no friend of mine;” and “Raggy rope, don’t be a dope.”
If your birthday falls in a month with an “r” in its name, you will be susceptible to poison ivy, according to folklore, which also tells us that if you catch poison ivy one year, you will have it for seven consecutive years. I was born in June, so by that reckoning I should be safe. But I caught poison ivy last autumn, so maybe I’d better start wearing some metal. But even better, I will be most careful about where I step and what plants I touch this fall. That, I believe, is probably the most effective cure of all.
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.