NEW MARKET,Va. — Brush up against the wrong characters while working in your garden and it could cost you a lot of scratch.
You think city streets are tough? You may have a murderer’s row hiding quietly among your vegetables or climbing the trellis with your morning glories.
The perpetrators are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac and they can be found everywhere in the United States except Alaska, Hawaii and portions of Nevada.
The most frequent contact comes during the searing heat of summer, when an estimated 10 - to 50 million Americans develop the redness, swelling, blisters and maddening itch characterizing the allergic rash, the Harvard Medical School says.
But the urushiol (oo-ROO’-she-all) oil in the poison ivy, oak and sumac sap can get under your skin any time of year and remains potent for long periods, especially if whatever was contaminated is kept in a dry place. That could include boots, balls, shovels, firewood or hunting gear. Secondary sources also could rub you the wrong way. You can easily acquire the rash from dogs and cats when they sidle up to you after frolicking among the plants in your yard.
“Where you really see it is on the forest’s edge, where you might be trying to put in a garden,” says Tony DiTommaso, a professor of weed science at Cornell University. “It’s a real transport corridor for pets, which can carry the resin in.”
An allergic reaction from the plants can be more than a temporary irritant. Infections can last from 10 days to three weeks.
Scratching won’t spread it or make it contagious, dermatologists say, but it can cause an infection.
There are a few things you can do to reduce the odds of acquiring the rash, but the best remedy is prevention. Rule No. 1: Know your enemy.
“I love gardening, but I’m surprised at how many people don’t know what the (poisonous) plants look like or misidentify them,” DiTommaso says.
“The one they usually confuse it with is Virginia Creeper. I walk around with a book and show it (ivy, oak, sumac) to my students. That wouldn’t be a bad idea for anyone in poison ivy habitat.”
Avoid the plants if you can. But if you can’t, wear long pants, gloves (with plastic covers) and long-sleeved shirts when you go out.
“If I go out into the woods and come across it (ivy), I head back home and take a shower,” says Glen Juergens, a U.S. Forest Service silviculturist with the Monongahela National Forest office at Marlinton, W.Va.
Getting the poisonous oils off your body is one thing. Ridding it from around your garden is quite another.
“It’s a tough plant, with a deep root system,” Cornell’s DiTommaso says. “Herbicides will work, but they’re nonselective and have a tendency to kill other perennials around them anything green. Digging it up doesn’t do it. The plants come back, and contaminate your shovels and everything.”
And don’t, please, try burning any dead plants: Urushiol can spread in the smoke and cause big-time lung infections.
“I was working with a bunch of scouts and scoutmasters who built a big bonfire after picking up around up a Civil War battlefield several years ago,” says Ronnie Zerkel, a hardware store owner from Mount Jackson, Va.. “The litter included some poison ivy plants. The whole bunch came down with a rash, about 200 of us.