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Ask Extension: What can I do about poison ivy?

I live in Northern Minnesota near a wetland along a river. I have contracted a rash the past two summers from either poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak while out cutting, digging or pulling weeds. How can I identify the plants? How can I protect myself?

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Education is really your best line of defense along with wearing protective clothing and conducting a thorough clean up.

1. Know the plants. 

Poison oak is not present in MN, but poison ivy, poison sumac, wild parsnip and cow parsley all can cause dermatitis. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture Noxious Weed webpage provides very good information . I also like Minnesota Department of Transportation downloadable PDF Minnesota Noxious Weeds. It provides management and timing instructions as well as look-a-like plants.

Interestingly, poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native plant (the only one on the MN Noxious Weed list). It is a semi-woody plant that grows on the edges of woodlands and in disturbed areas. Though more shrubby, it can become vining in southern Minnesota and has a beautiful fall color. If not for it's obvious human health issue, it would be a great ground cover.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)
Photo: Ted Bodner , USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database,

2. Treat the problem plants with herbicides. 

The MNDOT publication provides this information. Note that there are products also labeled for use around / near water edges. Never burn as the oils can be released into the air.

3. Wash up and clean up. 

These plants have oils / sap present in all plant parts that can persist on clothing, tools, gloves, shoes, boots - you name it - sometimes for long periods of time. Poison ivy and poison oak both contain urushiol that can still be active in the winter. So removing and washing clothes after being in a n infested area is important. Pull of gloves and clothing inside out, following the guide of "clean to clean, dirty to dirty" meaning keep clean surfaces together and dirty surfaces together. Wash your clothing separate from all other clothing to avoid potential cross-contamination and hang your clothes to dry in the sun and wind if possible.

Here is a very good publication from the US Forest Service: Outsmart Poison Ivy and its Relatives 

Clean your equipment after using with alcohol and water. Wear disposable gloves while doing this so you can toss them when you are done.

4. Other plants can irritate

There are other plants that cause irritation - like stinging nettles - so know these is also valuable. Likewise, individuals can be sensitive to plants that don't affect other people. I have a relative who cannot touch geraniums (the native kind) and another who gets a terrible rash from motherwort, a common weed in these parts. So it's important to learn the proper names of plants that are growing in areas where you live, work and play. A good resource for identifying wild plants is Minnesota Wildflowers.

Author: Julie Weisenhorn, Extension Educator, Horticulture
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