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Monday, April 22, 2013

Leaves of Three and Stings like a Bee....Be Wary of these Plants



With Earth Day upon us, many of us make an effort to increase our appreciation and awareness of our mother earth with all the goodness nature has to offer. If for you that means getting out there and getting in the nitty gritty of yard work, gardening, or naturalizing, then be aware of two plants that can easily sour your mood in a hurry. Poison Ivy and Stinging Nettles

Remember these old rhymes to help you recognize poison ivy   (Rhus toxicodendrun):

"Leaves of three; let it be."

"Hairy vine, no friend of mine." and
 "Raggy rope, don't be a dope."

  Vines on trees have a hairy appearance. Old, mature vines on tree trunks can be large and thick and the recognizable leaves may be higher up the tree where you may not see them.

 "Berries white, danger in sight."
 "Red leaflets in the spring, it's a dangerous thing."

In the spring, new leaflets have a red, shiny appearance. Later, during the summer, they are green and easily blend in with other plants. In the fall they turn a reddish-orange, making them more difficult to distinguish from other plants, while in autumn they can be reddish-orange.

The itchy rash caused by poison ivy is from the potent urushiol oil which irritates sensitive skin. A person's sensitivity can vary from season to season or even change throughout a lifetime. The potent oils stay active on unwashed clothes, garden tools and even dead plants for up to five years. If you are clearing brush and poison ivy is part of the pile, do not burn it or you could end up in the ER with severe lung irritation.

Our body reacts to the urushiol oil by releasing histimine, which is what causes the itch. The miserable cycle starts when the irritation begins to itch and we scratch. Scratching feels good for the moment but only aggravates things and since the urushiol is now on your fingernails it is likely to spread to other areas of your body that you touch. Be sure to change your clothes because you will continue to reinfect yourself if the oils are on your clothes.

Poison ivy, oak and sumac do all serve a purpose. The urushiol oil coats the leaves of the plant and is a natural defense mechanism for them. Also, the small, white or bluish berries feed a number of bird and small animals, and the tangle of the plant form a source of shelter.

Thank you Angelina for this great explanation of what is happening when exposed to plant allergens:
" It's an immune system response.The body's immune system is normally in the business­ of protecting us from bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders that can make us sick. But when urushiol from the poison ivy plant touches the skin, it instigates an immune response, called dermatitis, to what would otherwise be a harmless substance. Hay fever is another example of this type of response; in the case of hay fever, the immune system overreacts to pollen, or another plant-produced substance.
Here's how the poison ivy response occurs. Urushiol makes its way down through the skin, where it is metabolized, or broken down. Immune cells called T lymphocytes (or T-cells) recognize the urushiol derivatives as a foreign substance, or antigen. They send out inflammatory signals called cytokines, which bring in white blood cells. Under orders from the cytokines, these white blood cells turn into macrophages. The macrophages eat foreign substances, but in doing so they also damage normal tissue, resulting in the skin inflammation that occurs with poison ivy. ­"


Here is a good post from Rodale's Organic Life about how to get rid of poison ivy without the use of herbicides.

Fascinating in nature is that where one poisonous plant grows its antidote is most likely growing nearby. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is actually a wild native Impatiens. It favors wet soil and averages 4 - 5 feet tall. Found throughout the eastern United States, it is recognizable in that it has a lovely light green shade and after a rain, the droplets seems to lay on the surface. Should you find this plant after exposure to poison ivy or stinging nettles, break off the stems and crush them in your hands. You'll see that the stems are hollow and contain the itch relieving juice inside. Apply like a poultice to the areas of exposure for relief.

Jewelweed is often one of the first wildflowers children learn about, not only because of its usefulness but because it is so much fun. The flowers are orange in color and shaped like little trumpets so are adorable to look at. It has a second kind of flower other than the orange one. These are tiny petal-less flowers that don't open but that form the majority of the seeds. Once ripe, the slightest touch sends these seeds hurling everywhere, much to the delight of any child. The other name given to this plant is Touch-Me-Not.


Young Nettles mixed with Dock
Jewelweed is also great for the sting of Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica), a herbaceous perennial found almost worldwide. Many of us discovered this plant the hard way. Brushing up against this plant results in a stinging that one isn't soon going to forget. The leaves and stems are covered with brittle, hollow, silky hairs that contain three chemicals, a histimine that irritates skin, acetylcholine which causes the burning feeling and serotonin.

Nettles are a foraging favorite for those seeking out the nourishing spring greens. They cannot be eaten raw, but used in tea form or cooked like spinach, you can just taste the green energy. For health purposes, nettles are known as a kidney and adrenal ally, great for removing toxins from the blood, reducing inflammation, help with eczema, the list goes on. When skin and hair are a problem, nettles come to the rescue to restore balance.

To gather nettles, you must wear long pants and uses gloves to touch them so avoid the nasty sings. Best when gathered while tender and young, April and May are the best months to cut and harvest the plant.

Even if you have no interest in dealing with a nettle patch for food or medicinal purposes, let it alone to help out the butterflies. Members of the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed butterflies, depend on nettles for the growth of their caterpillars. Look for Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, and Commas.

Nettles also make a great fertilizer for the gardener. Soaked in a bucket of water, the resulting tea once strained is great for the plants and can be used as a spray for aphids and black flies. Add chopped up nettles to the compost heap to act as a natural activator which speeds up decomposition.


Even with precautions, no doubt you will get against the plant anyway, so it is best to know what to do. The plant that often grows nearby is Dock.

Tinged with red on the leaves, once you recognize this plant it is easy to spot. Tear off the leaves and crush them good into a mushy poultice. Apply this to the stinging area of skin. Don't rub or you may just aggravate it. You want the juice from inside the leaves to drip onto your skin to offer its neutralizing relief.


Nettles in flower (behind the orange Daylilies)

A look-a-like plant that is often growing amidst Poison Ivy is Virginia Creeper. A harmless vine that may be annoying because of its aggressive growing habits, but is a beautiful red in the fall and offers dark blue berries for wildlife. Virginia Creeper has five leaves, whereas Poison Ivy has three leaves.


Virginia Creeper






It is always a good idea to have on hand a natural remedy in your medicine cabinet in preparation for those time when you are exposed to the misery of Poison Ivy or Stinging Nettles. Jewelweed infused with apple cider vinegar results in an itch relieving spray. Lavender essential oil is added for its healing properties to help with the inflammation and harm done to the skin from scratching.


Jewelweed Vinegar Remedy