A poison ivy primer
It's itchy, ugly, and persistent. Along with skunks, ticks, and August traffic at Five Corners, poison ivy earns a top spot on the list of Island nuisances. Each spring, the dreaded toxicondendron radicans, poison ivy, brings victims in droves to Island pharmacies and doctor's offices.
Horticulturists, pharmacists, doctors and gardeners agree: The best defense against poison ivy is calculated avoidance. But even if you recognize the distinctive three-leafed plant, it's often difficult to escape its effects because the poison ivy plant contains urushiol (yoo-roo-shee-ohl), an oil that bonds to the skin. About 85 percent of mankind is allergic to it and develops an itchy red rash within one to two days after contact.
And you don't even have to touch the plant to contract the rash. Your dog or cat romps outside, comes in and rubs up against your leg, and two days later, you get it - a raised red patch of skin. A day or so later, small blisters will begin to form and the rash that can plague you for up to several weeks becomes relentlessly itchy because animals can carry the sticky urushiol on their fur without being affected.
Urushiol is found in the sap of the poison ivy plant. It's present year-round both on the berries that often remain and on the bare stems that appear to lie dormant during the coldest months. The oil is contained inside until it is compromised by crushing, cutting, or burning.
What does poison ivy look like?
"Leaves of three, let it be," the old adage warns. Be on the alert for plants that feature three leaflets which are oval and lightly toothed that start out bright green in the spring, then turn yellowish or reddish, then bright red in late summer and fall. According to Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, the plant is sneaky and aggressive, flourishing on the Island in three forms: a climbing vine; ground cover; or a shrub.
"It thrives on land which has been disturbed," Mr. Boland says. "When a field is cleared, where there has been development or, in the case of sand dunes, where sand and wind create natural disturbances. That's why the Vineyard is such an ideal environment. It's also typically found on the edge of fields or woodlands."