Leaves of Three

Poison Ivy & Virginia creeper mingle in a tree trunk in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Poison Ivy & Virginia creeper mingle on a tree trunk (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

. . . Let it be! But don’t be afraid of leaves of five, otherwise known as Parthenocissus quinquefolia or Virginia creeper, which is the polar opposite of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Poison ivy is easily distinguished from Virginia creeper by its three leaf pattern and smooth, glossy surface, while Virginia creeper has five leaflets with a serrated edge and wrinkled appearance. Further, when skin makes contact with the leaf (or vine) of poison ivy, the result for those that are allergic to its sap (7 out of 10 people are) is a blistering rash that causes at the minimum an annoying, persistent itch, and at its worst, swelling and pain that could require medical attention. It is possible for some individuals to get minor skin irritation from the leaves and sap of Virginia creeper, but considering that Virginia creeper and poison ivy very often grow together, it’s equally plausible that the contamination is from the poison ivy.

Leaves of three: Poison ivy in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Leaves of three: Poison ivy (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For those of you whose relationship with poison ivy has always been bad, I can hardly blame you for wanting to eradicate anything on your property that resembles it. I remember my fingers swollen to twice their size and my face so bloated my eyes could barely open, all because of a little brush with Toxicodendron radicans. But over time my tolerance has gotten better, and I’ve gotten a whole lot wiser when handling it. The rash from poison ivy is caused by an oil found in the plant called urushiol and any oil left on skin can result in an itchy, blistering rash. Washing thoroughly (as soon as possible after initial contact) with a strong soap, or in a pinch-dish liquid, is necessary to remove all oils from your skin. Be sure to remove any clothing that may have been in contact with the ivy and wash with detergent in warm water to prevent further spreading. Despite your best efforts, if you have pets that roam outdoors, there’s still a chance you’ll get infected from petting their ivy-oil covered fur!

Poison ivy covers a tree trunk in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Poison ivy covers a tree trunk (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

While there are commercial sprays available for killing poison ivy, I’m always afraid of using such chemicals on my property. Instead, I cut Toxicodendron radicans back and pull it from my gardens whenever possible, and remain diligently cautious if I’m near it. On the other hand, Virginia creeper has gotten a bit of free rein over the last few years.  In fact, I’m actually encouraging it to grow in places a decade ago would have been unthinkable to me. It has traveled up the side of my house and under the awning; providing dense cover for several nesting birds in spring, and bountiful clusters of indigo berries that supply nutrition for the non-migrating fauna in winter. It rambles along a stone wall in one garden and has taken quite a liking to a split rail fence bordering another.

Virginia creeper climbs the side of my house in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Virginia creeper climbs the side of my house (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Although I like Parthenocissus quinquefolia because it is native (Eastern United States to Mexico) and produces a gorgeous fall display of scarlet foliage set off with abundant clusters of bright blue berries, there are a few attributes to be leery of. Virginia creeper is hardy to zones 3-9, can grow almost anywhere (from fields and wetlands to city sidewalks) in sun or shade, and has the ability to reach over 50 feet. With that in mind, you can imagine what this plant is capable of if left to its druthers. It can easily overwhelm plants or shrubs, even a small tree, if not kept in check. However, Virginia creeper is relatively easy to remove (as long as you do it a few times a year-and wear gloves) by pulling its shallow roots from the ground and from any objects it may be clinging to, using care not to damage surrounding plants.

Early berries form on Virginia creeper in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Early berries form on Virginia creeper (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

And if you’re one of the unlucky ones that happens to get the poison ivy rash this summer, here are a few tips to help you through (and I would love to hear what has worked for you): Try the traditional calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream, both can be applied directly to the skin. A cool compress can often sooth the itch, and adding a little white vinegar can aid in drying the rash as well. For a natural remedy from your own back yard; Jewelweed, or Impatiens capensis, has long been used as a remedy for skin disorders as it contains chemicals that neutralize the components responsible for the skin-irritating effects of poison ivy. Simply cut a stem and rub the juices on the rash to promote quicker healing.  Happy gardening~

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