When Pruning Beware Poisonous Plants

I’d had it with the tree monster taking over my driveway. It loomed larger every day and threatened to eat me and my car every time we pulled in. As my personal rainforest grew thicker and more menacing, so did my resolve to hack it back … someday.

Someday when I wasn’t dressed for work, or late for spin class or lunch with a friend, when I wasn’t too tired and it wasn’t too dark, I would cut the tree monster back.

That day came last week. But the tree got the last word.

After a night of heavy rain, I bolted out of bed at 6:45 a.m. because I hear the trash truck. Aach!! Recycle day! I’d forgotten. I slid on flip flops and dashed out in my pajamas. (There goes the neighborhood.)

As I hauled the recycle bins from garage to curb, I ploughed through the tree monster, now rain-soaked and bowing lower than usual. I get drenched.

That’s it. I grab my clippers and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the tree monster. I hack, creating a large pile of plant remains. As I whack, I cut through branches entwined with vines. Some vines have clusters of three leaves.

Then — remember, this is all before I’ve had my coffee – I recall some little rhyme about leaves of three let them be. What if it’s? Could it be? Poison ivy?

Too late. I stuff the last of the plant debris into the second large trash bag. Back inside, I search my phone for what to do if exposed to poison ivy or oak. As a precaution, I follow the instructions: Immediately douse exposed area with rubbing alcohol, rinse with water, shower with soap.

Reactions, I read, usually show up 12 to 48 hours later.

Pretty sure I’ve over reacted, I forget all about it. Until … 30 hours later, bumps appear on my right inner arm and inside left elbow. The rash looks like measles, and soon blossoms into itchy blisters.

“I have leprosy,” I tell Katie McCoy Dubow, a publicist for Garden Media Group, who said, the same thing happened to her last summer. She, too, got poison ivy while clearing out some underbrush at her home outside Philadelphia.

“You were lucky you acted fast,” she said. “I got it from head to toe.” This was a small comfort. She went to her doctor, who prescribed steroids.

To spare you, and me, in the future, I called R.J. Laverne, education manager for The Davey Tree Expert Company, in Kent, Ohio, for some poison plant pointers.

“Warm weather is prime time for poisonous plants,” said Laverne. Just about every part of the county has at least one type of toxic plant. Here’s how gardeners can spot and handle them, and what to do if exposed:

  • Know the enemy. Poison Ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak are all relatives, Laverne said. All exude the same oily substance called urushiol, which causes a rash, blisters and itching in most humans, though not all, who come in contact.
  • What to look for. All are easy to spot, says Laverne. Poison ivy has three leaflets on short stalks. Leaf edges often have a notched edge. Poison ivy grows both as a ground cover or a climbing vine. You often find it along edges of woods or fence lines. Poison oak grows in the Southeast and the West. It’s a shrub, between one and three feet tall. It’s leaves also come in threes, but have deeper lobes so resemble red oak leaves. Sumac, the most toxic, is common in the east up to Canada. It grows as a shrub or small tree, with seven to 11, oval, deep green leaflets per stem.
  • Wear a barrier.  If you’re not sure whether these poisonous plants are in your yard, assume they are, and, when working outside, wear gloves, long-sleeves, long pants, a hat, and closed shoes.
  • If exposed, break out the alcohol. No, not to drink, to douse exposed areas. Hit exposed areas with rubbing alcohol fast, inside 30 minutes if possible. Intervene before the oil binds with skin cells. Then rinse with clear water, and shower (don’t bathe) using warm water and soap.
  • Wash clothes and tools, too. Urushiol can stay on clothing, shoes, gloves, and tools for years. Wash exposed clothing apart from other clothes. Hose off tools and shoes right away.
  • Beware of dog. Though animals don’t react to poison plants like humans, Fido or Fifi can drag the oils into the house on their fur. If you pet them, you could get a reaction.
  • Never burn. Don’t burn yard debris if you suspect any plants are toxic. Anyone who inhales the smoke could land in the hospital.
  • Spray it away. To rid your yard of poison plants, spray the foliage with weed killer, and let the plants die, roots and all, said Laverne. (Don’t pull them out.) If you still want to remove the dead plant, wait until winter when the least amount of oil will be present.
  • If you get a reaction. Try over-the-counter remedies like Benadryl, Calamine, or hydrocortisone ointments to relieve itching. (I liked Tri-Calm.) If that isn’t enough, see a doctor for something stronger. Then, said Laverne, whose been in this boat dozens of times, “Grin and bear it for a week.”

Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One. You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.