Editor’s note: This is an occasional series from the Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge.
Poison ivy: If you’re allergic, you want to destroy it. But, despite its reputation, the three-leafed vine does serve a purpose.
“It’s not something you want to grow in a small yard when you might be brushing up against it, but it should be left to grow in the woods. It’s a native vine that is an excellent source of food for birds,” said Helen Peebles, president of the Capital Area Native Plant Society.
Many birds, including cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, American robins, yellow-rumped warblers and more, are fond of poison ivy and eat the berries from these plants in the fall and winter.
The culprit of human allergic reactions to the plant is a chemical called urushiol (you-ROO-shee-ol), and the oil is found in every part of the plant — leaves, flowers, stems and roots.
Poison oak and poison sumac are in the same genus (Toxicodendron) as poison ivy. They are versions of the plant with different leaf shapes but can also cause an allergic reaction.
Virginia creeper, another native vine, is often mistaken for poison ivy. The petals on both plants are similar. Virginia creeper does not cause allergic reactions, but it is another good bird food source.
Be careful when trying to remove poison ivy from your yard. Do not burn it, which can release toxic oils and possibly cause a dangerous lung reaction if inhaled. If a pet’s fur comes in contact with the plant, it can spread it to people, so keep them away from the vines. You also can transfer the oil to other parts of your body with your fingers.
When gardening near the vine, wear long sleeves and gloves. Wash thoroughly with soap if you come into contact with the vine.
Most rashes caused by poison ivy can be tamed with over-the-counter cortisone cream. However, for severe reactions, seek medical attention.
When it comes to poison ivy, the best defense is a good offense: Learn what it looks like, avoid contact, wash your hands and other contaminated items, including outdoor gear, garden tools, jewelry, socks and shoes.
And when you can, admire those native vines for what they do for the birds. Just do it from afar.
Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge seeks to advance awareness, understanding and stewardship of the natural environment. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.