Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

You’re Gonna Need an Ocean, of Calamine Lotion

poison oak big surOne of the running jokes in my family has to do with my peculiar fascination with poison oak. When we’d go hiking in the foothills of California, which are often covered with poison oak, I’d be shouting out warnings: “Poison oak to the right! Look out on your left!” My family members would laugh at my obsession. But, let it be known that they’d also avoid that which I had brought to their attention. (Photo: A patch of poison oak in Big Sur, California)
You might think my extreme fear of poison oak stems from my having once suffered with the itchy, oozing rash caused by direct exposure to the plant. In fact, however, I have never had poison oak, probably because I’ve been so committed to avoiding contact with it. The strength of my feelings about poison oak probably comes from having once seen the infected chest and back of my friend Jeff, who lived down the street from me in Glendale. He had hidden in a patch of poison oak, and was covered with a horrific rash. One look at Jeff and I resolved never, ever to come in contact with poison oak.  Even though I spent countless hours hiking in the poison oak infested hills of California, I managed to avoid getting zinged by it.
poison ivy treeI’m sorry to say that by moving to Texas I haven’t left poison oak behind. It grows in my new home state. But I’m even sorrier to say that I now have new sources of Urushiol (the oil in poison oak that causes the rash) to worry about. Far more common in the Texas Hill Country is poison ivy. Apparently we also have poison sumac and poison oak.
But poison ivy is all over the place here, including my yard!  A month ago, Beth, a friend from California was visiting our family. She spied a plant in my yard that looked like a type of ivy and had three-leaf clusters. So she took a sample to the Cibolo Nature Center in town, where an expert confirmed that it was poison ivy. Since her discovery, I have spent several hours applying a chemical that is supposed to kill poison ivy to the dozens of small plants in the yard. I’m sure I won’t eradicate it completely, but at least I can try to keep it under control. I’m not so worried about direct exposure to poison ivy, since my Jeff-induced phobia remains. But I do fret that one of our pets might get into the plant and share secondhand Urushiol with me or my family.poison ivy starbucks
If you’re looking for technical information about poison ivy and its cousins, check out the online Poison Ivy, Oak, & Sumac Information Center. This website is not sponsored by any medical institution, but is managed by Jim Dunphy, a man who wants to help people avoid the unpleasantness of an Urusiol rash. Who knows? Maybe Jim saw Jeff’s tortured torso when he was a kid.
Now that I have a new obsession – identifying poison ivy rather than poison oak – I’ve seen it all over the place. The photos to the right show poison ivy climbing a tree in Boerne. This tree, as you can see from the lower photo, is by the local Starbucks. So if you’re in my home town and get a latté, be sure to watch out. Otherwise,

You’re gonna need an ocean
Of calamine lotion
You’ll be scratching like a hound
the minute you start to mess around.
Poison ivy, poison ivy?!
Well late at night when you’re sleeping
Poison ivy comes a creeping all around.

  • Chris

    I’ve had poison ivy. It’s awful.
    I recommend roundup. Apply directly to the leaves. Withink a day or two, the poison ivy will look like it’s been through a nuclear war.

  • Brent Logan

    I used to have poison oak in my front yard. Couldn’t kill it. Every time I’d use round up, only the leaves would die. I figured if I couldn’t beat ’em, join ’em, so I started watering the poison oak … a lot! The poison oak didn’t like all the water and the ground got soft enough that I could put on disposable gloves and pull the plant out like a weed. Problem solved!
    Good luck with your poison ivy. I’ve never had to deal with it.

  • Mark Roberts

    Thanks Chris and Brent. Apparently Roundup works, but requires multiple treatments. Others swear by Brush-B-Gone. But beware: dead poison ivy plants still have Urushiol oil, and can stay potent for several years. If you remove dead poison ivy (oak, sumac), use gloves and be careful.

  • Howard Cobble

    I’m no botanist but the picture looks suspiciously like English ivy and not poison ivy. English ivy is a horrible invasive and is not dangerous. You might want to get a first-hand opinion on the identity of this plant.
    The adage about poison ivy is, “Leaves of 3 let it be.”

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Howard: Thanks for the comment. The pictures don’t do it justice. You’re absolutely right about the leaves of three, and this plant has leaves of three, and only leaves of three. Part of what makes poison ivy so hard to identify is a wide variety of leaf shape. This particular plant does have leaves that look rather like English Ivy. Poison ivy is also frequently confused with Virginia Creeper. But I’m pretty sure the plant I’ve put up is poison ivy. For more info on identifying poison ivy, check out the this website:

  • Beth

    Hey Mark,
    Fun to read your post. I’ve been around Poison Oak and Ivy all my live and I’ve had it twice (once from each) and I was miserable!!!! I think they go with cockroaches as a sign of the fall, our need, and creations need for redemption. I look forward to the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb and Beth can lie down in the leaves of the rambling ivy and oak (which will no longer be called poison, but maybe changed to passion?).

  • HenryH

    Like your friend Jeff, my brother jumped off a bridge in the woods near our house into a patch of poison ivy when we were kids. If he hadn’t been wearing shorts he’d probably have been OK but as it was, he had huge (greater than 1 inch) blisters on his legs and was home from school for well over a week. He couldn’t bend his legs without bursting the blisters. That was enough for me. For some reason I seem to be less susceptible to it now than I used to be, but I’m not complaining.
    In addition to being careful with dead poison ivy, do not, under any circumstances, burn it. The oil will travel with the smoke into your lungs and potentially cause you very serious problems.
    Around here (Maryland) we have a lot of box elder (a maple) that has leaves that look fairly similar to poison ivy. There are seedlings of box elder all through our woods and it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart.
    Poison Ivy:
    Box Elder:

  • Mark D. Roberts

    HenryH: Yes. I’ve heard that burning poison ivy can have disastrous implications.
    Where I live, Virginia Creeper is often confused with poison ivy. But it has five leaves (generally), not the telltale three.

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