Dirt on Gardening

As the leaves fall off the trees and I find myself spending time cleaning the garden beds and clearing brush in the woods, I am extremely careful about a poisonous Midwestern vine that is can be hard to unidentifiable without its telltale leaves.

Poison ivy, botanically referred to as Toxicodendron radicans (L.) Kuntze, is a member of the cashew family. Located in floodplains and uplands forests, alongside streams, in thickets and fencerows and along roads across Missouri and from Florida to Oklahoma and Texas and North to Canada and West to Washington, poison ivy is a vine that is found across most of the United States.

The vine has an oil that is found in all parts of the plant – vine, leaves, flowers and fruit – that is poisonous and produces skin irritation. Some people are not irritated by poison ivy because they are immune to the poison. However, immunity to the plant may be lost later in life. Other individuals may have strong reactions to poison ivy oils, requiring medical attention.

Poison ivy can be a vine that will grow up to 60 feet high, climbing trees or structures with aerial roots. Poison ivy can also be a low growing, upright shrub. In the spring or fall when the leaves are not prominent on this native vine, poison ivy can look like Virginia creeper or wild berry tendrils. This is very dangerous for gardeners that are not immune to the poisonous oils found in the ivy.

The leaves are the most recognizable part of poison ivy. The leaves are alternate and can vary in shape and size. The end leaflet can be one to eight inches long and a half to five inches wide with a stalk ranging from a half inch to one and half inches in length. The blades of the leaf are mostly oval to lance shaped, dull green and slightly to very hairy.

From May though June, poison ivy has clusters of tiny, greenish white flowers on new stems. The flowers turn into fruit from August through November. The fruit is a quarter inch wide, small, smooth and white berry with two seeds.

When gardening or working in the woods this fall, be extremely cautious around unidentifiable vines and low growing shrubs.

Gardeners that know they come into contact with poison ivy oils should wash immediately with cold, soapy water. It’s important to note that pets can come into contact with poison ivy oils and from their furr, can pass ivy oils along to humans.

On a positive note, although poison ivy is problematic for most gardeners, the fruit is eaten by at least 75 different songbirds. Wild turkey, bobwhite quail and ruffled grouse also eat the berries. Deer will eat the green leaves of poison ivy.

Questions or comments related to gardening? Contact Joleen at missourigardener@hotmail.com

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