Horses and other foragers love to eat poison ivy.
Poison ivy, as well as poison oak and poison sumac, are plants that can give susceptible humans anything from an irritating itchy rash to a full-blown blistery reaction resembling severe burns, and worse. The offending substance, an oil called urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-ol) in the sap of these plants, is released when the plant is 'injured' or otherwise disturbed. Some sensitive individuals swear they will get poison ivy from merely walking past it. But direct contact with the leaves, branches, or hairy vines and roots is generally how the plant's dastardly, invisible oil gets introduced to the skin. And clothing, shoes, pets, and horses can readily pick up the oil when they touch it, and when you touch them, it gets on you too. It is extremely dangerous to burn these plants because the oils get into the air and can be devastating if inhaled.
But there is a reason to appreciate poison ivy, in spite of the recent research report that stated, 'another reason to worry about global warming is more and itchier poison ivy - the noxious vine grows faster and bigger as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise', and that is: horses love to eat it! (But find it on a store shelf? No.) It apparently doesn't bother horses at all, and ingesting it actually helps relieve their inflammations of various kinds. Horses with arthritis, laminitis, and dermatitis are drawn to it and will readily consume gobs of it. So will goats, deer, sheep, and other foragers (Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy…).
Another reason to appreciate it is the homeopathic remedy Rhus toxicodendron, which is made from the poison ivy and poison oak plants. Remember, "like cures like" is the basis of how homeopathy works - a substance that causes a symptom can, in homeopathic dose, cure "like" symptoms. Homeopathically prepared substances, after much dilution and succussion (hard shaking) no longer contain the offending or toxic part, only its 'energy' imprint remains. The homeopathic preparation from poison ivy is thus used - in people and horses - for relieving and curing a long list of ailments, as seen in any Materia Medica. Some of the more common reasons to use Rhus tox include: skin complaints with burning, itchy, red, swollen, irritated or blistered skin (like cures like!), herpes, diaper rash, eczema; musculoskeletal complaints such as rheumatism, osteoarthritis, joint inflammation, cramps, sprains, and strains; systemic and other disorders such as rheumatic fever, flu, viral infections with fever, delirium, irritated and swollen eyes, and much more. Native Americans had medical uses for the poison ivy plant as well.
Also, being a tough and spreading vine that thrives in disturbed areas, poison ivy holds the soil in place against erosion.
We also cannot deny its breathtaking beauty…
What does poison ivy look like?
It looks lovely - from deep dark reddish green in spring, rich green in summer, to bright red, orange, and yellow come autumn. This perennial vine creeps up and spreads out into trees, up telephone poles and along the wires, all over house and barn walls, around and through fences and decks, and anywhere we let it grow. In fall, the colorful foliage we admire likely includes poison ivy.
Remember "Leaves of three, let it be, berries white, poisonous sight" especially if it appears to be a vine. The leaves are alternate, with three leaflets that are usually smooth and shiny with a reddish hue. The leaflets can be elliptic or egg-shaped, and their edges can be smooth, lobed, or have tiny teeth. Poison ivy grows in clusters along the ground as well as being bushy and a climbing vine. The woody vines appear fuzzy because they put out small roots to attach to structures. Poison ivy reproduces by seed and spreads by its roots. It flowers in summer with green-yellow-white 5-petaled flowers (that attract special moths and butterflies) and gets 1/8" round firm, white berries (that birds love). All parts of this plant contain urushiol. The ivy's oil is most abundant in spring and summer, and most potent at night. It retains its effects for years, so an object sitting untouched for several months that was contaminated with poison ivy oil could, when touched a couple years later, still cause a reaction.
Poison ivy, looking lovely in autumn
So what do we do if we come into contact with poison ivy?
Hard as we may try to avoid it, it can happen. As soon as possible after petting that contaminated muzzle or coming in contact with the plant itself: Wash your hands and forearms well. Your contaminated clothing should be placed in the washer with plenty of soap (or in a plastic bag and thrown out), then wash your hands/forearms again, and anything you touched. Then shower with soap and body-temp-warm water (so as not to open all your pores to even more exposure) and wash off the oil - and again with more soap, hotter warm water, and a washcloth to open the pores and hopefully get more of the oil out. Baths are never recommended because oil floats on water, and the poison ivy oil could then coat your whole body.
The haste is necessary because the ivy oil penetrates the skin within minutes. It will then take some time for the body to begin to react to it - it is a true allergic reaction (delayed hypersensitivity) - with redness and possible swelling at first, itching gradually setting in and becoming more intense, and blistering within 24 to 72 hours (sometimes sooner). Sensitivity and amount of exposure determine the level of misery. This condition can be serious. Sensitivity can decrease or increase as we age.
Treatments to consider include:
- Use homeopathy. Consider one of the following remedies, whose complete pictures can be found in a Materia Medica:
Anacardium (contact dermatitis with intense itching, swelling, and fluid-filled blisters, worse from heat)
Apis (rash is the result of an allergic reaction, looks like hives, is red and swollen, has burning or stinging pain, feels better with cold applications)
Belladonna (hot, bright red, throbbing skin or affected areas, may have fever)
Graphites (rash oozes a golden, sticky fluid that crusts over; worse at night and from warmth)
Rhus toxicodendron (blistery, burning, itching rash, better applying heat or bathing in hot water); used to desensitize as well
Sulphur (itchy, red, irritated rash worse from heat, washing, scratching)
Urtica urens (rash like nettle-rash, stings and burns intensely)
There are also homeopathic combination remedies specifically prepared for poison ivy relief, and some that may help with desensitization as well.
- Apply jewelweed lotion - jewelweed works by counteracting the chemicals in other plants that cause irritation. If you touch poison ivy, and can find the jewelweed plant nearby (they are often found within reach of each other!), squeeze and rub the jewelweed plant on the area. Like "nettle in, dock out" remember "poison ivy in, jewelweed out".
- Rotate applications of aloe vera gel, vitamin E, and calamine lotion
- Take huge amounts of vitamin C - from 1 up to12 grams daily (1 gram per hour depending on severity and stools - stools will get loose when intake exceeds need)
-Consult your healthcare professional - steroids may be needed to mute the immune system
How can we safely get rid of poison ivy?
Poison ivy is considered a noxious nuisance species, and is invasive, but if your horse has access to it, he may help keep it under control. Horses will even gnaw at the dried up dormant or dead vines in winter. Goats do a good job too of removing it, roots and all, or at least limiting its growth. If it is growing where it is unwelcome, try the following to remove it.
To safely remove it yourself, wear gloves and clothing to completely cover and protect you. Get a pile of used grocery bags (with no holes), nippers, and pliers with long handles. Put your pulling hand inside a plastic bag (or two together for extra strength), and wearing it like a glove, carefully pull out or nip off foot-long pieces, holding them in your pull hand inside the bag as you go. Turn the bag inside out as you take it off your hand so that the vines end up inside it, and tie the handles together. To get a better grip on the vine and to avoid tearing the plastic bag, use the pliers carefully in your other hand to help. (The tools will need to be washed well before being put away.) Put the bags in the sun so the bagged vines die, and the bagged vines can be safely disposed of in the trash. Once the foliage is out of the way, check for underground roots and dig up what you can.
There are effective eco-friendly prepared defoliants and herbicides, or you can make your own. To defoliate, get a gallon of white vinegar, dissolve 1 cup of salt in it (heating the vinegar will speed this up), and add 10 drops of liquid detergent. Fill a spray bottle, and wet the leaves. This will defoliate the vines for easier removal, but beware - the fallen leaves still contain urushiol. Also be careful of surrounding vegetation, which the spray will also harm.
To kill the vine, carefully mix 1/2 cup of orange oil, 1 gallon of 20% vinegar, and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap. These are strong ingredients that will probably need to be special ordered. Mix carefully, avoiding contact and fumes. Spray on only the foliage to be killed, keeping children and pets away from it. You can also cut the vine and spray the cut ends. It will probably resprout, so spray again if it does, which should be the last time it sprouts.
Clean your tools and yourself thoroughly.
Nature hates bare ground, so once the poison ivy is removed, plant something you want in its place - a lot of it. Competition and constant controlling will keep poison ivy away.