If you develop itchy, red skin covered with blisters or hives after working in your yard or garden, it could be from poison ivy or poison oak. An anaphylactic reaction to urushiol oil -- which can remain toxic on gloves, clothes, tools or even animal fur for months -- allergic contact dermatitis from touching the plants leads to about 2 million cases a year in the United States, resulting in more than 300,000 lost work days annually. However, you can eliminate these noxious plants from your landscape without resorting to chemicals.
Name Your Poison -- Identify the Enemy
These close cousins, including Eastern poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Atlantic poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens), Western poison oak (T. diversilobum) and Eastern poison oak (Toxicodendron quercifolium), grow in virtually all areas of the United States, thriving in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 11. Poison ivy and poison oak grow as 1-foot to 6-foot shrubs or as climbing vines. They have three leaflets and light green flowers. They grow from rhizomes under the soil and from seeds, often dropped by birds eating the pale green fruits.
Curb Those Toxic Growths
To naturally eliminate poison ivy and oak, you're going to have to dig, although you should not attempt this if you have a significant sensitivity to the plants. The best time to remove the plants is when the soil is thoroughly wet -- leaving even a small bit of the roots, which can stretch as far as 20 feet in every direction, allows new growth. While mowing is not usually an effective method of removal, diligently cutting the plants to the ground at the first hint of green can work. To get rid of climbing vines, cut them off at their bases; pull off as much vine as possible and dig the roots.
Some Help From Mother Nature
Poison ivy and oak provide the perfect excuse to get those sheep and goats you've wanted. While their grazing isn't an immediate answer, consistent foraging is a long-term solution. Keeping your landscape covered with more welcome plants helps, as well.
Staying Safe and Healthy
Old-timers may tell you, "Leaflets three -- let it be," but there are other precautions to take, as well. Never burn poison ivy or poison oak, because breathing urushiol droplets can cause serious lung problems. Also, bury the debris to prevent further contact. Wear disposable gloves and protective clothing when pulling the plants, and turn the gloves inside out before throwing them away. Don't assume that you're safe because you haven't had a reaction in the past, because sensitivity can change, especially with repeated exposure. If you or your family members do encounter the triple-leaved threat, wash your skin completely with soap and cold water as quickly as possible -- the oil penetrates almost immediately. After washing, clean skin with rubbing alcohol to break down the oil and carry it away. Wash exposed clothes thoroughly and separately from any others -- don't forget your shoes -- and be sure to clean the washing machine to keep the oil from contaminating the next load of laundry.