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Fall brings bright colors, don’t let bout with poison ivy ruin it

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Because of the season and because of breaking news about the itchy bites of the Oak Mite, we’re added Kelly McGowan’s column about poison ivy to the web site a bit early. You will also find a story about he Oak Leaf Fall Mite.

Fall is a great time of year to hike and explore the abundance of hardwood forests that we are so blessed to have here in the Ozarks.  The cooler temperatures and beautiful fall foliage entice many people to get outdoors and enjoy all that nature has to offer.  While out and about, be aware that poison ivy is just as toxic and potent in the fall and winter as it is in the spring and summer.  Although it can be found almost anywhere – including well-manicured lawns and gardens – it can commonly be found growing along the edges of wooded areas and it’s red, orange and yellow fall foliage can help to identify it this time of year.

Not every three-leaved plant you find is poison ivy. Here are ways to help you identify what is and isn't poison ivy.

Not every three-leaved plant you find is poison ivy. Here are ways to help you identify what is and isn’t poison ivy.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is common throughout much of the Ozarks. If you’ve ever been the victim of this plant’s wrath, or know someone who has, you are well aware of the humbling and unbearable itchy rash and water blisters that make even the strongest of folks want to curl up in the fetal position and cry.  All parts of the plant, including the root system, contain urushiol, an oily irritant that causes skin irritation. Some people are more sensitive than others.  If exposed, treat the area with rubbing alcohol immediately which will dissolve and remove the oil.  Urushiol is not water soluble, so washing with water alone will just spread the oil.

Dishwashing liquid, strong alkali soap and over the counter skin treatments can also be used. Wash any exposed clothing in hot water with laundry soap that is labeled to remove grease.

Depending on a person’s sensitivity, symptoms may show up right away or within a few days.  Scratching and itching can easily spread the rash.  Over the counter treatments are available, but seeking professional medical attention is often necessary.

Poison ivy can be found as a low growing shrub or a ground level trailing vine. It can also use aerial roots to climb surrounding vegetation and structures.  The “leaves of 3, let it be” saying is a good reminder for both children and adults to help with identification. Poison ivy leaves are compound and made up of three leaflets.  Leaf shape can vary from plant to plant, but the two outer leaflets are commonly shaped like mittens.  The plant easily spreads by underground, creeping roots or by seed.  Birds eat the fruit and pass the seed in their droppings.  This is why poison ivy is commonly found under power lines, along fence rows and in other areas where birds congregate.

Now for the million dollar question: How do you keep it under control?  Unfortunately, it is tough to get rid of and there is not a totally safe way to eradicate it without coming into contact with the urushiol.  The irritating oil can even remain on dead plants, mowing equipment and tools for a long period of time.

Hand pulling and hoeing can be effective in small infestations.  Take care to remove as much of the root system as possible.  Wear disposable gloves and enough clothing to cover all exposed skin. Herbicides are available, both organic and synthetic, that are labeled for poison ivy control.  Read and follow all labels carefully before and during use. Because of the woody, underground, spreading root structure of poison ivy, especially in well-established areas, repeated applications may be necessary.  Herbicides are most effective when applied during active growth and before plants start to bloom.

One final warning to keep in mind is that poison ivy should never be burned.  Inhaling the smoke can cause the same symptoms as exposure to the plant and can be very dangerous.

Kelly McGowan is a horticultural educator for the University of Missouri Extension Service in Springfield. She divides her time between MU Extension and Friends of the Garden. You can reach her by e-mail at

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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