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Marni Jameson: Beware of Poisonous Plants When Pruning

In this story on the Marin Independent Journal, Davey Tree experts give tips on how to prevent becoming exposed to poisonous plants and what to do when you are.

Published July 20, 2013.

I'd had it with the tree monster taking over my driveway. It loomed larger every day and threatened to eat me and my car every time we pulled in. As my personal rainforest grew thicker and more menacing, so did my resolve to hack it back "... some day.

Some day when I wasn't dressed for work, or late for spin class or a social plan, when I wasn't too tired and it wasn't too dark, I would cut the tree monster back.

That day came last week. But the tree got the last word.

After a night of heavy rain, I bolt out of bed at 6:45 a.m. because I hear the trash truck. Aach!! Recycle day! I'd forgotten to put out the bins, again. I slide on flip flops and dash out in my pajamas. (There goes the neighborhood.)

As I haul the recycle bins from garage to curb, I must plough through the tree monster, now rain-soaked and bowing lower than usual. I get drenched.

That's it. Because who knows where the yard clippers are, I grab my rose clippers (Yes, I know I have told you to use these only for flowers) and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Still in my pajamas I hack, creating a large pile of plant remains. As I whack back, I notice I'm cutting through branches and vines intertwined. Some vines have clusters of three leaves.

Then — remember, this is all before I've had my coffee — I recall some little rhyme about leaves of three let them be. What if it's? Could it be? Poison ivy?

Poison ivy 2

Too late now. I stuff the last of the plant debris into the second large trash bag. Back inside, I search my phone for what to do if exposed. As a precaution, I follow the instructions to the T: Immediately douse exposed area with rubbing alcohol, rinse with water, shower with soap.

Reactions, I read, usually show up 12 to 48 hours later.

Pretty sure I've overreacted, I forget all about it. Until "... 30 hours later, bumps appear on my right inner arm and inside left elbow. The rash looks like measles, and soon blossoms into itchy blisters.

"I have leprosy," I tell Katie McCoy Dubrow, a publicist for Garden Media Group, who said the same thing happened to her last summer.

"You were lucky you acted fast," she said. "I got it from head to toe." This was a small comfort. She works in the garden industry and knows better.

"I thought I was immune," said Dubrow. "Did I think some of the plants might be poison ivy? Yes. Did I worry about it? No." She had to see her doctor, who prescribed steroids.

I now had no room to complain about my little patches, which wouldn't cover a post card.

But to spare you, and me, in the future, I called R.J. Laverne, education manager for the Davey Tree Expert Co. in Kent, Ohio, for some pointers.

"Summer is prime time for poisonous plants," said Laverne. Just about every part of the county has at least one type of toxic plant. Here's how gardeners can spot and handle them, and what to do if exposed:

• Know the enemy. Poison Ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak are all relatives, said Laverne. All exude the same oily substance called urushiol, which causes a rash, blisters and itching in most humans who come in contact.

• What to look for. All are easy to spot, says Laverne. Poison ivy has three leaflets on short stalks. Leaf edges often have a notched edge. Poison ivy is most common in the Southeast, the Midwest, and as far north as Michigan. Poison oak grows in the Southeast and the West. It's a shrub, between one and three feet tall. It's leaves also come in threes, but have deeper lobes so resemble red oak leaves. Sumac is common in the east up to Canada.

• Wear a barrier. When working outside, wear gloves, long-sleeves, long pants, a hat, and closed shoes if plants are near.

• If exposed, break out the alcohol. No, not to drink, to douse exposed areas. Hit exposed areas with rubbing alcohol fast, inside 30 minutes, if possible. Intervene before the oil binds with skin cells. Then rinse with clear water, and shower (don't bathe) using warm water and soap.

• Wash clothes and tools, too. Urushiol can stay on clothing, shoes, gloves, and tools for years.

• Beware of dog. Fido or Fifi can drag the oils into the house on their fur. If you pet them, you could get a reaction.

• Never burn. Don't burn yard debris if you suspect any plants are toxic.

• Spray it away. To rid your yard of poison plants, spray the foliage with weed killer, like Round-Up, and let the plants die, roots and all, said Laverne. If you still want to remove the dead plant, wait until winter when the least amount of oil will be present.

• If you get a reaction. Try over-the-counter remedies like Benadryl, Calamine, or hydrocortisone ointments to relieve itching. If that isn't enough, see a doctor for something stronger. Then, "Grin and bear it for a week."


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