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Poison Ivy in Early Spring

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At the start of the spring season, after being stuck in our homes for the winter season, we relish the warmer weather and head out for a hike in the park. Normally, during the summer months, we keep an eye out for poison ivy, but in the winter, or even in early spring, is poison ivy still a problem? After all, plants and trees don’t have leaves, right?

What is Poison Ivy? 

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. 

Poison ivy can be found in every province in Canada except Newfoundland. It grows on sandy, stony, or rocky shores and sprouts in thickets and clearings, such as 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.

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 leaflets. So how do you stay away from this potent plant when it can be hard to tell the difference between it and the hundreds of other twigs that all look alike?

Know it When You See it

In winter, poison ivy leaves will turn deep red, then shrivel up and fall off. The roots can become exposed and can look either hairy or completely bare. During the winter season, these roots can also continue to grow by attaching themselves to walls or trees. In spring, when the leaves of poison ivy start to bloom, they may look red or a mixture of red and green. 

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.

Kristijan Arsov at Unsplash
What Part of the Plant is Harmful? 

Contrary to popular belief, the leaves of the plant are not the only part that is poisonous. 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!

Physical contact with any broken part of the plant, not just a leaf, may cause a severe reaction. The extent of the reaction depends on your sensitivity and the amount that’s touched your skin. 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.

Remember, if you accidentally rub the urushiol from your arms into your mouth or eyes, medical attention will be required. 

Furthermore, the rash caused by poison ivy is not contagious. Meaning you cannot get a poison ivy rash itself by touching another person’s rash. However, please not that if the oil of the plant is still on the skin or clothes when you come into contact with someone who has poison ivy then it will spread to you. This is why it is important to do a thorough clean of anything that may have come into contact with the oil of the plant. 

Can Poison Ivy Spread to Other Parts of the Body?  

No, poison ivy will not spread to other parts of the body. Only parts of the body that have been exposed to the oil may develop a reaction, for example areas exposed to the oil accidentally. 

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.

When washing your hands use dishwashing soap and cold water. Remember to also scrub under your nails with a brush. 

Under dry conditions, urushiol can retain its harmful effect for as long as one year or more.

Furthermore, try your best not to scratch the rash as scratching it will cause new irritation to occur. Though it can give immediate relief, it can possibly prolong the symptoms. Furthermore, if the skin breaks it can cause an infection. 

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.

If you think your pets were exposed to poison ivy, then wear rubber gloves when you are washing them. 

Hiking can be a lot of fun and don’t let poison ivy ruin your trip. Being safe is just as important as having a good time. When hiking with friends and family at High Park Nature Centre, remember to stay on the trails provided to you and try not venture off the path. To keep your skin safe, wear long sleeved shorts, pants or even 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.