A common plant has been a pain in the skin to millions of Americans for centuries.
Some Native American tribes were calling it “the three-fingered devil of the forest” long before the first Europeans touched American soil.
Capt. John Smith, the man credited with naming poison ivy, spoke of its evil effects in letters to England in 1609.
It’s just as problematic for Kansans in 2012. In fact, this year’s crop seems especially lush and tall, thanks to a warm and wet spring.
“I think it’s certainly the main plant that keeps so many people from venturing off the beaten path,” said Spencer Tomb, a Kansas State University plant specialist. “Once somebody has a bad case of poison ivy, they never forget it or want to get it again.”
Tomb, also an avid outdoorsman, said a lot of itching and irritation could be avoided if people better understood the plants, and the problems they can cause.
“It’s the oil on every part of the plant that causes the problems,” Tomb said. “You can’t get it by just walking near the plant. It can’t be passed from person to person … by touching the rash.”
But the oil of the poison ivy plant, called urushiol oil, is a tenacious and potent substance.
According to the Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Center, the amount of oil that would cover the head of a pin could be enough to irritate the skin of 500 people. Every person on Earth could participate in a communal itch-a-thon from just one-quarter ounce of the irritating oil.
And the oil has the amazing, and unfortunate, ability to just keep on giving.
Tomb said being downwind of burning poison ivy can irritate some people, including a rash-like symptom in their lungs. Legs can be showered with the oil when the plant is hit by a Weed eater.
Petting a dog that has walked through poison ivy or coming in contact with another person’s clothing that has brushed the plant is the same as touching it yourself.
Tomb tells of a Texas Tech professor known to have especially severe reactions to the oil. One day a student laid a sample of poison ivy on the professor’s desk, and was told to quickly remove it because of the man’s serious reactions.
“Well, they took the poison ivy away, but nobody wiped down the desk,” Tomb said. “The guy came back, had his hands on the table and then got a terrible case of poison ivy every place on his body his hands touched … every place.”
Even on the coldest days of winter, when the plants are dormant, one touch can be all it takes to get the itching started. Tomb said thick vines dead for up to five years have been known to hold enough oil to cause irritation.
While it’s estimated to cause at least some form of irritation amid 90 percent of the public, Tomb said people can really never be sure how their body will react after contact.
“Sometimes people get it terribly when they’re young and then kind of outgrow it,” he said. “Others seem to grow into it being a problem as they grow older.”
Tomb, who carried a rash on his wrist from a recent turkey hunt, was 39 before he had his first case of poison ivy. A friend of his was 53.
The key to dealing with poison ivy is simply to avoid it.
Tomb said it grows in all of Kansas’ 105 counties and within most towns, including Wichita. Poison ivy grows in fence lines, along the edge of woods, near streams and other places.
“The important thing is being able to recognize it in its various forms,” Tomb said as he looked for the plant Wednesday afternoon near Council Grove. “It will grow wherever nature allows it to grow.”
He has seen climbing vines as thick as his wrist and rising up to 80 feet in a tree, and places where it covers many yards of ground as a crawling vine. It can also grow in the form of a bush, like he found near a stream on Wednesday.
“It’s like the saying, ‘Leaflets of three, let it be,’ ” he said as he looked at a cluster of deep green leaves. “There’s usually a reddish tinge where the leaves grow together, too.”
Stems usually come from a variety of angles from the main stalk when it’s in bush form.
Climbing vines usually have hundreds of tiny, hairlike fibers that attach to the other surface. Clusters of buds are green, and the berries will usually be some form of white.
He said there are a growing number of medicines and creams that help relieve the itching, though nothing offers total relief.
“The best thing to do is avoid it, but if you come in contact with poison ivy the best antidote is to rinse the area thoroughly with cool water within about 10 minutes,” Tomb said.
“If you’re going fishing and you walk through it, when you get to the creek or the pond just keep right on walking out into the water for a while. You’ll probably be OK.”