How to clear a site of poison ivy

Photo of a large number of green plants growing out of the ground

When I woke the first morning in the mountains this past week, it was raining. It had started in the middle of the night and woke me with its sudden unexpected drumming upon my tin roof. It continued through the night and well into the morning, a steady, medium rain in a thoroughly gray sky. The sort of rain that soaks into the ground, turns the earth into a giant, expansive, wet sponge.

When I realized what kind of rain it was, when, in the chill of a morning that made my breath visible, I discovered it was precisely that kind of rain, I groaned. Not because of the rain itself. In fact, I rather enjoy rain, ordinarily (though I would prefer to not also be chilled). I groaned because it was exactly the sort of rain that makes possible a sorely needed but thoroughly dreaded task: Clearing the poison ivy.

Poison ivy is, among a large and varied array of noxious plants, quite possibly both the most famous and the most noxious.

All parts of the poison ivy plant–leaves, roots, stems, flowers, fruits–produce an oil called urushiol. When this oil comes into contact with bare human skin, most human skin reacts by creating a protein that results in a nasty, itchy, oozing, painful rash. At its worst, this rash can lead to anaphylactic shock (in those with dire allergies), but in most cases results “merely” in wishing one could rip one’s own skin off and crawl under a rock to grow a new one.

The rash is insidious in its behavior, waiting two or three days sometimes after exposure, so that you may not even know you have encountered the plant until it begins to pain you. It appears first where exposure to the oil was most extreme, and then seems to “spread” as areas of lighter exposure successively break out. Meanwhile, the original hot spots grow and become more and more painful and itchy, even as the extent of the rash spreads. There is no way to know, sometimes for days, how bad the rash will get. You just have to wait it out, bathed in calamine location which, though it is almost entirely ineffective, is the one thing that makes you feel like you are DOING something about it.

The rash itself is not contagious, but the oil can be easily and unwittingly spread by contact. Perhaps your hand merely brushed a leaf aside. Because the oil is invisible, you are unaware of the contact, so, without realizing, you transfer the oil to your face the next time you scratch your nose, rub your mouth, hold your chin in your hands. Perhaps you clasp your hand around your opposite arm, and then that arm brushes against your side as you are undressing for bed that night.

Within a few days, you will know every spot your hand contacted before it was eventually washed, and every spot that was then contacted by those spots. They will appear in a growing revelation of redness and oozing. You will find them on your hands, neck, lips, cheeks, jaw, and side. If you are very, very unlucky, you might even be reminded that the night of your exposure you, in a different way entirely, got, ahem, “lucky.”

If, while the oil was present, you have happened to touch some unfortunate other human, they too will suffer the ill effects. If, in fact, the, uh, “lucky” that you got was gotten with this other person, you will soon discover just how much your relationship can survive. I hope you really love each other.

So, anyway.

Although poison ivy is difficult to avoid entirely while hiking in the woods, it is generally manageable if you wear long sleeves and pants, stay on trails, and wash your hands and clothes (or set them aside for later washing) upon return. If you’re aware of exposure at the time, a couple of simple, quick interventions can prevent the rash from developing. Wash your hands in soap, or scrub the affected area with sand from a stream bed and rinse the sand off. This will remove the oils and prevent further harm. Time is of the essence–perform these actions as soon as possible or, at minimum, within about twelve hours. Once the oil has soaked in and your body has begun producing the reaction, it is too late to do anything other than treat symptoms.

The real trouble with poison ivy is when it is in your campsite, yard, and other areas that you frequently use. It is one thing to practice extreme caution while hiking, and another to be constantly on your guard when you just want to chill and enjoy the quiet.

Thus, my determination to remove it from the treehouse vicinity.

Sadly, the job is not so easily done as said. Besides being noxious, poison ivy is also notoriously difficult to remove. While brambles and nettles can eventually be beaten back by cutting, either with a mower or a pair of pruners, poison ivy is not so easily deterred. Furthermore, mowing it is downright foolhardy. Imagine chopping all those oil-laden parts into tiny bits and then blowing them into the air you’re breathing and moving through. This is not a recipe for happiness and joy.

Besides which, cutting it back doesn’t work. Poison ivy spreads by a system of underground roots, where it stores and shares energy and resources with its root siblings. Unless you deal with the root, you will never defeat the plant.

And, even when you do remove parts of the plant, you must be careful how you dispose of them. Leaving them on the ground may allow it to sprout anew. Burning it releases the noxious oil into the air for you to breathe. Do this once and you will never, ever forget the experience of a flaming urushiol reaction in the delicate mucous lining of your nose and throat.

Killing poison ivy with poison is by far the most popular and common modern approach to control but this, too, has its problems. The most obvious problem is the environmental impact of spraying toxins into the soil, water, and ground. Pesticides and herbicides have far-reaching impacts on plants, animals, and all our relations who share this universe with us. I am not willing to contribute to the violence perpetrated upon the earth for the convenience of less poison ivy.

Besides which, poisoning poison ivy isn’t even terribly effective. It is notoriously, devilishly hard to get rid of. Its strength is its extensive root system, and spraying above-ground parts is at best marginally effective at killing roots. Even poison labeled specifically for poison ivy is only barely effective, and only with repeated applications.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with only one safe, earth-friendly, and effective tactic: Hand to hand combat.

You see, like most great villains, poison ivy’s strength is also its weakness. The root systems are extensive, but they are shallow. When the ground is saturated and soft with damp, it’s possible to pull all of your poison ivy up by its very roots, eliminate it at the source, and be done with it once and for all (until seeds blow in and the process starts over, but this is a long process and much easier to manage than an established infestation).

In fact, because the root system is part of an extensive network, when you find and pull up one root, it will often spill the metaphorical beans and reveal the location of many of its compatriots. In this way, you can eliminate many plants more-or-less simultaneously.

However, this method does have its drawbacks. For one thing, it is extremely time sensitive. You must perform this action at just the right time, and “just the right time” is immediately following exactly the sort of rain we had the night previous to the beginning of this story. 

Secondly, the operation is delicate and hazardous, requiring a good eye, excellent motor skills, intense focus, solid tracking ability, and a helluva lot of PPE. For those who don’t work in medicine, environmental engineering, or construction and/or aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, that stands for “Personal Protective Equipment.” AKA, armor.

So. The morning in question.

Coffee. Planning. Grumbling.

Yesterday’s long-sleeved shirt. Yesterday’s long-legged pants. Pant legs tucked into socks. Clogs (boots are effective as well, but given the lack of on-site laundry facilities, I’ve opted for easy washing and drying). Gloves. Hat to hold hair out of face and reduce the urge to touch facial area with hands.

Equipment:

Two trash bags. A hand saw. Girded courage.

Assess the area. I decide that I will clear everything from several feet behind the Peregrine Nest across to the edge of Alder Creek, and from the outside of the hot tub area to the driveway area around the barn. This is a limited enough area that I can reasonably complete it while the ground is wet, and large enough that it encompasses all of the major areas that I spend the most time in while here.

I begin in the driveway area.

Clearing poison ivy by hand is not a fun job, exactly, but it has its satisfactions. It readily lends itself to getting into a state of flow, a sort of focused and productive state that takes one outside one’s worries and concerns and, fundamentally, feels great. I have read that flow is achieved when one is operating both at the edge of one’s abilities–within your ability, but pushing the limits enough to be challenging–and when the activity requires your full focus.

Clearing poison ivy fits this bill.

Oh, poison ivy requires skill? You say. And focus? Yes. Quite a lot.

Skill #1: You must know what poison ivy looks like and recognize it at a glance, picking it out from the profusion of background color and texture.

Many a backwoods wanderer knows the adage “leaves of three, let it be.” It is a useful adage as far as it goes. If your goal is to avoid exposure to poison ivy, this rule of thumb will keep you safe. However, it is sadly lacking for someone who wishes to eradicate poison ivy without completely destroying the environment.

You see, like most venomous, poisonous, and noxious living beings, poison ivy has many imitators. Certain wild strawberries and blackberries; kudzu; and, frankly an enormous panoply of other plants, all of which imitate poison ivy’s three-leaf pattern. If I used only this rule to choose which plants to eliminate, I would be at the task for weeks and, when I was done, the treehouse area would be devoid of fully ⅓ of its greenery. Not a good way to be in relationship with my land.

Worse, poison ivy is very often found camouflaged among profuse greenery, such that in order to find it, you must have something of an eagle’s eye for it.

Photo of a large number of green plants growing out of the ground
It’s a game of hide and seek. Yayyyyyyyy

To do this, one must know poison ivy intimately. It is not enough to study it in a field guide or to hear a description. How can you tell poison ivy from everything else by its description? If I tell you what poison ivy is like, you will be baffled and no closer to knowing it than you are now. If I tell you that its leaves can be smooth… or serrated. Large… or small. Dark green, light green… or red. Ivy-shaped. Oak-leaf-shaped. Hairy. Smooth. Held high. Trailing on the ground. Climbing a tree. If I tell you all these things, are you any closer to knowing what poison ivy is like?

And yet, it is possible. Poison ivy does have a distinctive look and feel. Let us call it a Zeitgeist. Stephen Buhner refers to it as the sense-feeling of a thing. As with any other thing, to understand the Zeitgeist of poison ivy, one must have an intimate relationship with it. This is a relationship earned over many years of experience and trust and, perhaps, battles.

It is a skill.

Skill #2: Tugging. Once you have identified a specimen of poison ivy, the next task is to tug it gently up out of the soil. But “tugging” is an inelegant term for a rather delicate operation.

Tug: Not too hard, lest you break the thin, delicate root. Tug: Not too soft, lest you fail to release it from its earthy bed. Tug: Don’t twist, or you may break the stem of the plant itself. Tug: You must grab it firmly but softly, pull it lightly but strongly. It is a paradox. It is a physical feat that requires concentration and a good bit of practice.

Skill #3: Tracking. Once you have pulled up part of a poison ivy root, you might celebrate as it reveals to you its many tracks to compatriots. But your task is not done. It is not quite so simple as that. Just as an informant who wishes to withhold some of his secrets might send you on wild goose chases or offer up red herrings along with valuable info, poison ivy will have mixed its roots and tangled them with the roots and stems of other plants.

The result will be a tangled mess that you, the tracker, must untangle if you are not to dig up all the wrong plants and leave the actual villains in their lairs. To do this successfully, you must have finely honed tracking skills for following your leads, holding several other leads carefully in abeyance, while you nose out the one and trace it to the next enemy, and then the next, and the next, pulling each one up to reveal its additional networked leads, while leaving the innocent bystanders in their innocence.

If you drop one, you may be able to pick it up later from the evidence of stems and leaves aboveground… or you may not. It’s perilous, at best. Any root that is left in place will sprout again within weeks, leaving you to repeat the task once again.

But, after approximately an hour or two of this activity, interspersed with realizing that there is a gap between your glove and your sleeve and the dawning realization that even if you wash it thoroughly and soon, you have been pressing leaves and stems and roots against that delicate area and will likely have at least a small rash there in the next few days, as I say, and also interspersed with realizing that one of your poison ivy plants has climbed quite high into a tree and developed a thick and challenging “trunk” of its own, which then must be cut by a saw, which then itself must be decontaminated…

When, at the end of these travails, you realize that you have completed an initial eradication throughout your designated area… then, and only then, you may begin a second round.

Because, of course, you won’t have found all of the poison ivy hiding among the foliage on the first round.

So you return to the point of your beginning, and begin again. In another half hour to forty-five minutes, you will be complete. And then you can do a third round.

If, during the third round, you turn up no new evidence of poison ivy, then you may in confidence complete the task and move on to the decontamination phase.

If not, then you repeat the process as many times as necessary to turn up a nice “clean” inspection.

Then you enter the decon phase.

Under the easiest of circumstances, decon from hand to hand combat with poison ivy is challenging. Everything must be laundered, carefully, without contact with anything else. Your body must be washed with soap, from head to toe. Your hair washed, in case you have touched it inadvertently during the process. Your equipment decontaminated.

The poison ivy itself must be double bagged in large, industrial-strength bags and disposed of in such a manner that it doesn’t touch anything else that you might later inadvertently recontaminate your skin on.

When operating off grid, the challenge is even greater.

So thus I, upon task completion, strip naked in the fresh and chill air. I place my clothing and other gear into the pre-prepared trash bag, a separate color from the industrial bag into which the poison ivy has gone. Thus, I can tell at a glance which is garbage and which is to be laundered at the house in town.

I leave the shoes out because I will need them later and, since I chose well, I can easily wash and dry them here.

I place the saw on top of the trash bag to remind me that it needs to be decontaminated when I arrive back in town.

Then I take my bare-fleshed self and a bottle of clean, all-natural and aquatic-safe soap down into the icy water with the crawdads and begin my personal decon routine.

Wash hands. Check. Dip head in ice-cold water. Check. Wash with soap. Check. Wash face. Wash neck. Pour freezing cold water over shoulders and chest. Check check check. Shiver uncontrollably. Check. Rub entire body with soap. Check. Rub feet with sand and soap. Check. Wash clogs with soap that will never ever ever come all the way out of all its pores so that the shoes will forever be slippery and make your toes sudsy ever after. Check.

Rinse.

Check.

Inspect the shore for your best route out and back to the treehouse.

Check.

Discover that every route out is lined with stinging nettles. The sort of thing you don’t really notice when you’re fully clad but now has become something of a conundrum. Carefully examine the pattern of them and discern a careful path that will keep you clear of the worst.

And now. As you stand in the icy creek. Cold. Shivering. Wet. Naked. Eager to end your ordeal and return to the warmth and comfort of your dry treehouse.

Now. Now is the moment. When you discover.

That one. Last. Fucking. Godsdamned. Asshole. Sprig. Of motherfucking. Poison ivy. That you missed.

And it is blocking your way out.

And that, my friends, is how you clear poison ivy.

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