A friend and I were returning from a late summer weekend in the Ozarks and we
stopped to let our grade school children eat, run and wade in a creek. Julie
saw some bright red leaves -- the first touch of autumn color. “Sue, come see
this beautiful vine,” she called as she fingered the shiny, waxy leaves.
“Julie, come away! That’s poison ivy,” I screamed. “Oh, no,” she argued,
“I know poison ivy.” I recited the old warning, “Leaves three, turn and
flee, leaves five, let it thrive,” as I coaxed her away from that climbing
vine. Several days later she called to say, “That was poison ivy!”
This plant defends itself from being picked, crushed, cut, dug up, stepped on
or even just lightly touched. Animals can carry the offending oil but they
don’t get rash or blisters. People are affected in varying degrees -- but I
shudder to hear someone say, “Oh, I don’t get it.” That could change.
Luckily, I’ve had only two really bad encounters. Old timers said I should eat
three or four ivy leaves early each spring, to develop immunity. “Horrors!
What about my poor stomach?” I’d say. Others advised, “There’s nothing to
prevent it, you just have to stay out of the woods.”
Me? Stay out? The woods were my playground and the source of my spending
money. Violets and gooseberries in spring. Blackberries in mid-July.
Hazelnuts, hickory nuts and black walnuts in the fall. Leaf mold for flower
beds, any time of the year. Mom and I loved the woods and went there often.
She often reviewed the “leaves three” rhyme and showed me the stuff from a
distance. I learned to avoid three leaf ivy and its relative, poison oak,
which was more of a bush but had three leaves and the poison oil.
I must have let my guard down at age 14 while picking blackberries. Ivy rash,
itchy and blistery, covered my hands, arms, ankles and part of my face. Not
only did it itch uncontrollably, it oozed and dripped for several days. The
dermatologist said, “Use baking soda or cornstarch to keep it dry -- and wait
two weeks.” A similar encounter came when I was 35 years old.
When our son Walt was 9, he took off his shirt while helping Chub clear a
fence row. He was literally covered with the rash but Chub was not affected.
After that, we all used “liquid glove,” a product made for mechanics and
painters. And we really respected those “leaves three.”
Poison ivy rash in winter was new to us when Walt had it in his beard one
Christmas week. The doctor explained that he probably contacted it on firewood
-- or even walking in the smoke from firewood on which ivy grew. He had seen
patients whose rash came from pets and from car fenders that brushed the ivy
or from shoes they had worn in the woods. He advised, “Leaves three? Turn and
Poison ivy clings to trees, it grows on the ground or in ditches and places
where little else survives. The oil is found in all parts of the plant, all
year long. After a time in the woods, it’s a good idea to scrub exposed parts
with cool water and strong soap. Drop outer clothing in the washer and
remember to remove the oil that is likely on the shoes you wore.
The five leaves of Virginia Creeper and woodbine are harmless. “Leaves five,
let it thrive.” As for three leaves, flee! But watch where you’re steppin’,
as you go.