It is now early spring and you want to go for a hike in the park. Normally, during the summer months, you’d be concerned with poison ivy but in the winter, or even in early spring, is poison ivy still a problem? After all, the plants and trees don’t have leaves, right?
We all know how poison ivy can cause itchiness for hikers who venture off the path, thanks to the urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all) oil found in the plant. But the oil that causes this reaction isn’t just concentrated in the leaves, it’s also on all parts of the plant. Which means that the most famous of all toxic plants is just as dangerous in the winter and early spring as it is in the summer!
If you come in contact with poison ivy, the extent of the reaction depends on your sensitivity and the amount that’s touched your skin. If you accidentally rub the urushiol from your arms to your mouth or eyes, you will need medical attention.
Now, everyone knows the saying “Leaves of three, leave it be.” But in the winter, there are no leaves, and early in the spring, only a small handful of the plants may have started to produce the leaflets. So how do you stay away from this potent plant when it’s hard to tell the difference between it and the hundreds of other twigs that all seem to look alike?
Know it when you see it
During the winter months, the plant stems are woody with upright, knobby stalks 10 to 80 cm (4 to 31.5 inches) high. The off-white, pea-sized berries that appear by September are clustered, round and waxy, and often remain on the low, leafless stems of the plant all winter. The bud is an orangey colour and as things start to warm up in the spring, they start to reveal red leaflets in groups of three.
Poison ivy is found in every province in Canada except Newfoundland. It grows on sandy, stony or rocky shores and sprouts in thickets and clearings, including along the borders of woods and roadsides. In High Park, poison ivy grows as a shrub and produces greenish berries that turn off-white in early fall.
All parts of the poison ivy plant, including the roots, branches and buds contain the poisonous urushiol resin. Physical contact with any broken part of the plant, not just a leaf, may cause a severe reaction. Even contact with a surface that has urushiol on it from the plant, like the fur of an animal, can cause a reaction. However, goats and other grazers eat poison ivy, and birds eat the seeds, leaving them unharmed.
What to do if you get poison ivy on you
Wearing protective gloves and using soap and water, thoroughly wash any area of your skin that may be affected. Use cold water because hot water tends to open the pores, increasing the chances of the urushiol being deeply absorbed into your skin.
Under dry conditions, urushiol can retain its harmful effect for as long as one year or more.
Also, any clothing worn during contact with poison ivy should be carefully removed, washed in hot, soapy water and hung to dry for several days. You may need to repeat washing to get all the oil off. Urushiol oil is so potent that only one nanogram (a billionth of a gram) can cause a nasty rash. So remember to practice extreme caution while washing clothes and wear protective gloves.
Cherry Blossom season is a time when exceptionally large crowds of people make their way to High Park. With this much foot traffic, we wanted to take a moment to remind ALL visitors to remain on the hiking trails as poison ivy can be found growing almost everywhere in High Park.