Creepin' in: Poison ivy has people scratching

Kevin P. O'Connor

Suddenly, everything is growing.

Your day lilies are big enough to wave in the wind, hydrangea are crowding their neighbors and the maple tree in your backyard is casting shade. And there, right on the line between sunlight and shade, is a pretty new plant, three shining burgundy leaves. So you move in for a closer look.


You have just made contact with poison ivy. And you are not alone.

“I have it right now,” said Manny Arruda, owner of Flamingo Landscaping of Fall River, Mass. “I know of two or three people in our business who have it now.

“I’m careful. All I have to do is look at poison ivy and I get a rash. But sometimes it doesn’t even look like poison ivy. Sometimes it looks like it is dead. Poison ivy is never dead.”

Poison ivy is an American pleasure. It grows in almost every state east of the Rocky Mountains. It can flourish in any condition. The plant loves the acid in the rain, the elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the air, the edges of clearings in the woods and brush that are abundant in old cities and new suburbs.

And this spring, with lots of rain, lots of sunshine and above-average temperatures, has been perfect for the plant.

“It’s a problem and it is everywhere,” said Richie Guerreiro, owner of Copicut Landscaping of Westport, Mass. “You have to spray it and then snip it and then cut it out. Even then, if you haven’t killed all of it, it will come back.”

And while the leaves on the plants cause trouble, the hairy roots on the vines that climb trees and stone walls cause an even worse irritation. The underground roots will make you miserable, too.

The plant irritates about 70 percent of the population. It catches even the people who are the most careful about it. Poison ivy is sneaky, the professionals say.

“Poison ivy is good at hiding,” said Mike Estinola, owner of Mike’s Landscaping of Fall River. “Sometimes you don’t even know you have pulled it out. Whenever we go to work with a new customer, we find poison ivy the owner didn’t know about. We almost always find some hidden somewhere.

“I’ve already caught some myself this year. I don’t know where I got it.”

If you work outside and think there is a chance you came in contact with poison ivy, wash your hands and arms and clean your tools with alcohol wipes. It wouldn't hurt to wipe down the coats of your dogs and cats, too — the oil gets on animal fur and can spread to human skin.

If you clear poison ivy, put on rubber gloves and then cover those with leather gloves or rubber gloves heavy enough for handling chemicals. Cover your arms and legs. Be careful with your hands — wiping your brow would be a mistake.

“I always keep a supply of the pink lotion, calamine or Caladryl,” Estinola said. “It looks awful, but it works.”

Landscapers use a variety of products to dry out or wither the roots of the plants after they cut back the poison ivy. But poison ivy seems to like abuse: It keeps coming back for more.

“You have to find it, cut it back, bag it and haul it away,” Arruda said. “Then, next year, you have to do it again.”

E-mail Herald News (Fall River, Mass.) writer Kevin P. O’Connor at