Helaine Hughes from the Poison Ivy Removal Company in Greenfield, NH, shares her tips on how to get rid of poison ivy – both in your yard and on your clothes or skin.
By Joe Bills
Jun 01 2016
Most of us have at least one poison-ivy horror story of our own. Close encounters with this noxious plant can ruin days, and getting it out of your yard is a nasty chore. Helaine Hughes first took on that task as a youngster in Dunstable, Massachusetts, helping her father clear space for a pheasant pen. In 2003, after assisting with another removal project, she realized that she had a knack for it. She started the Poison Ivy Removal Company that same year. Now living in Greenfield, New Hampshire, here she shares her hard-earned wisdom.
It’s easy to confuse poison ivy with other common plants. Its leaves can vary in size, color, and texture, and it can spread along the ground, climb trees or fences, or grow like a shrub. Poison ivy’s defining characteristic is its clusters of three leaves, positioned on the branch like a head and two arms.
The urushiol oil contained in poison ivy serves as the plant’s natural defense against fungal attacks. It also reacts with human skin, causing a painful rash and oozing blisters. “The key is knowing enough about the oil that you don’t get it everywhere,” Hughes says. “It can stay on an object for as long as five years. I’m OCD-level careful about what I touch. Items are either clean or dirty. If you don’t know, it’s dirty.”
Chemical herbicides are a common removal tool, but Hughes doesn’t endorse that approach. “It takes a lot to get the job done,” she explains, “and chemicals leach into the groundwater. Those poisons linger for a long time, endangering kids and pets.”
How to Pull Poison Ivy By the Root
The only completely effective way to remove poison ivy is to pull it out by the roots, Hughes advises: “We get in there and rip it out by hand. It’s important to get as much of the root as possible. If we get to the end of a root and the tip is white, that indicates a recent break, and we keep digging. A black tip means an older break, probably the end of that line.”
What to Wear When Removing Poison Ivy
After some early lessons learned the hard way, Hughes and her team have adopted hazmat suits as their uniform of choice. As a homemade alternative, wear long pants, long sleeves, and washable gloves and sneakers; use tape to eliminate exposure at the wrists and ankles. Once the job is done, all clothes go straight into the washing machine, and you go straight into the shower.
How to Dispose of Poison Ivy
Hughes recommends putting vines and roots into trash bags as you pull them and disposing of them in a landfill compactor. Burning poison ivy is a horrible idea: The oil spreads on the ashes and smoke, and if it gets into your lungs, you’ll likely end up in the hospital.
How Long Do You Have After Poison Ivy Exposure to Wash It off Your Skin?
You have about a 15-minute window to wash the oil off after skin contact, Hughes cautions, although the window might be shorter in people who are more sensitive. No special soap is required. If you don’t have a ready water supply, an outdoor skin cleanser like Tecnu can be effective on its own.
Is Poison Ivy Contagious?
Once the oil has been washed away, you can’t “catch” poison ivy from someone else; neither the rash nor the blisters contain urushiol. But the oil can be transferred from clothes, pets, or tools. For safety’s sake, Hughes has rules. “The front of truck is clean; the back is dirty,” she says. “Nothing contaminated goes in the front, ever. Anything that’s in the back, I always assume it’s dirty.”
Do you have any tips for how to prevent poison ivy? How to get rid of poison ivy? How to treat it once you’ve got it? Let us know in the comments!