Know the Outdoors


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Nov 18, 2002
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Know the outdoors

July 29, 2004


Forget mosquitoes, black flies and party-altering ants, poison ivy can be the biggest and longest-lasting nuisance to berry-pickers, hikers, campers, fishermen and other warm-weather outdoors enthusiasts. If you spend any time in Michigan's great outdoors, it's wise to heed the old saying: "Leaflets of three, let them be."

Poison ivy normally has three-part, long-stalked leaves that are green in spring and summer, red in fall. The plants, which prefer growing around lakes and streams, can be a vine (resembling a fuzzy rope), a trailing shrub that grows along the ground or a freestanding shrub. Most often, poison ivy snakes its way up, down and around tree trunks.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that up to 50 million Americans each year develop an allergic rash -- called dermatitis -- after making skin contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. The poison ivy's dermatitis is caused by the skin's contact with the ivy's oil -- called urushiol -- found in all parts of the plant.

Leaves and stems are easily crushed or cracked when stepped on, brushed against or manipulated by rain or wind, allowing urushiol to seep. After the sap is exposed to air, it turns black on the plant -- another warning to stay away. Home owners who try to destroy the plants should not burn them. Urushiol can be released in smoke, which can be more damaging than skin contact when inhaled.

The effects of exposure to poison ivy -- itchiness, inflammation, swelling and blisters -- vary by each person's sensitivity and the amount of contact. Symptoms can begin to appear as soon as a few hours after contact to as long as two days later. Washing the infected area intensely with soap and water immediately after contact can lessen and sometimes eliminate penetration into the pores. Once a rash or blisters appear, the best bets are calamine lotion, cool showers, or baking-soda or oatmeal baths.

Despite poison ivy's detrimental effects on humans, birds and mammals find the berries and leaves delectable and harmless. Many songbirds eat the berries during fall migration when other food sources have vanished; year-round resident game birds like the ruffed grouse also eat the berries. Deer browse the berries and leaves.

No people had more contact with poison ivy in Michigan than the Indians. The Hurons, Chippewas and Iroquois made drinks from crushed poison ivy stems and chewed the plants' leaves, believing it built immunity. Some western tribes believed that giving infants parts of the plant in food desensitized them to the ivy's effects as adults. Some tribes used the oil in making poison-tipped arrows

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