Contrary to what the eco-pessimists would have you believe, Earth is self healing. But healing is a transformative process, and nothing is stagnant. Today a field, tomorrow a forest; today a sandy beach, tomorrow a rocky coast; today a stream, tomorrow a marsh—these transformations can look like losses or gains, depending on your outlook.
So as we bring our field under cultivation, even in the most integrative, permacultural paradigm possible, we are necessarily losing some wildness. This could be seen as good, as many of the plants we’re replacing are “invasive,” but there is still an element of Mother Nature Knows Best that we press up against when we cover plants with cardboard and compost, replacing Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive with vegetables and herbs.
One of Mama Earth’s defense mechanisms is repellent plants. Whether prickly or irritating, these plants protect the soil and other plants by keeping herbivores and humans at bay. The largest Maple on our field is almost 6′ tall, protected all around by a thick, thorny stand of wild berries. As the Maple grows strong enough to defend itself, it will throw enough shade that the berry canes will thin out, likely migrating elsewhere to nurse other baby trees. Que milagro.
So when I see Poison Ivy growing between the garden beds, I try to appreciate the protective instinct at work. Like scar tissue on a wound, these plants are trying to protect the exposed soil from further disturbance, to give the land an opportunity to heal and whole.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac are related plants (members of genus Toxicodendron, until recently genus Rhus) which grow in different locations and conditions. They all have “leaves of three,” and can all produce an itchy rash if a person has developed an allergy to their oil. Poison Ivy is the most common cousin in my neck of the woods, so that’s what I’m writing about, but most of this should apply to rashes caused by any of those plants. The allergy can develop at any time during a person’s life, so just because you haven’t had a reaction before doesn’t mean you won’t have one next time!
Still and all, I need my beauty rest as much as the next guy, and lying awake in agonies of itchiness is not my idea of a good time. Nor am I interested in martyrdom. So you better believe we’re out there with the cardboard and the Itch Zapper, trying our dangdest to smother those valiant protectors, even as we honor their efforts.
You know I talk to the plants, right? All the time. Even walking city streets, there I am chit chatting with the sidewalk weeds. So when I find these brave, three leafed avengers, I thank them for protecting the soil. But then I explain that we too are here to protect and build the soil, that we share their love of the incredible biodiversity present and have every intention of working to preserve it, and that we’d appreciate the opportunity to work without their assistance for the time being.
Gloves or no gloves, we end up with some rashes. I had a particularly bad bout a few weeks ago and learned a few things I want to share.
What the Hell is Happening to My Skin? or An Exploration on the Physiology of Allergic Contact Dermatitis
It was 4 am, and my efforts not to scratch the orange blisters which had cropped up on seemingly unrelated parts of my body had failed. I was pacing the 4′ of open floor in the RV, wringing my itchy-ass hands in distress when my eye fell on a textbook of Pediatrics from 1983. I figured that at the very least, it would take my mind off the itching, so I sat down with the massive book and flipped to Chapter 11, The Skin.
There, under subheading Allergic Contact Dermatitis, I discovered a crucially important fact and the answer to a longstanding conundrum: can Poison Ivy be spread?
I’d always heard Doctors say that Poison Ivy cannot be spread by ooze from the blisters, but only by oils from the plant. That is, if you touch the plant with your right hand, then scratch your left cheek and shake hands with your neighbor, then shower, you will have rashes on your right hand, cheek and neighbor, but will be unable to spread it to other parts of yourself or other people or animals.
But conventional wisdom and personal experience say that the rash can be spread, at least around one’s own body. I certainly didn’t touch any Leaves of Three to my chest, but the intensely itchy rash that developed there made breastfeeding an agony. Thankfully, the baby didn’t seem to be catching it, but every day a new part of me was itchy and red, which made the whole situation even more confusing. What was going on?
The textbook cleared it up, but only because my Medical Jargon is more than conversational. I was able to interpret the paragraph on “intense pruritis” aka major itchiness into Plain English and discovered the secret.
If a person has developed an allergy to the plant, their body will produce antigens at the site of the initial contact. That antigen, basically immune cells that cause the rash, can get under your nails or on your clothing or bed clothes and from there can initiate a rash on another part of your own body. So you touch the plant with your right hand and realize it, go inside and wash and develop only a few small blisters on that hand. Later, you scratch that hand and then scratch a bug bite on your leg and develop a rash on your leg. But if you shake hands with your neighbor after washing off the plant’s oil, your neighbor is safe no matter whether your blisters are oozing or not.
Once I realized that mechanism of spread, I was able to contain it and stop spreading it around my body. Relieved as I was, I couldn’t help wondering why this wasn’t common knowledge. 1983, the publication year of the textbook I was reading, was a whole generation ago. If Doctors have known since then that the antigen can spread the reaction, isn’t it lying by omission to say that the rash can’t be spread by the pus from the blisters?
As awful as the experience was, I’m glad I went through it so that my experience can help others. Here are some natural treatments I found that really help.
Soothing Poison Ivy Rashes
If you think (or know) you’ve touched one of these three-leafed wonders, don’t touch anything else! Go right to running water and wash thoroughly with soap that will cut through oil, like Castile soap. There are special soaps for poison Ivy oil removal, so if you encounter these plants frequently, you might want to get some. But it’s harsh, so keep it out of reach of children and pets!
Also, I gotta say that if you have $2.50 and live near a drugstore, you might want to go get yourself some Calamine lotion. This relatively safe preparation is probably the most effective way to stop the itching for most people.
However, it can be irritating to the skin, making the whole uncomfortable situation last longer than it would have. And it is highly flammable, so you have to be extra careful with clothing or bedding that’s gotten pinked up with Calamine, especially if you do most of your cooking on an open fire!
I would caution against anti-histamines, aside from Plantain or Nettle. Of course, if you think the lack of sleep is going to cause a dangerous situation, taking a Benadryl isn’t the end of the world. But it seems that regular use of anti-histamine drugs may cause the histamine reaction to worsen over time. Not to mention that unpleasant side effects like digestive disturbance and intense drowsiness are fairly common and can last longer than the relief offered. And it’s a dangerous medication to keep around children, as overdose can be fatal.
Also, these drugstore remedies come in plastic, contain petrochemicals and will leave chalky pink blotches on everything, and you might find yourself looking for alternatives. What follows are some safe, effective, easily available herbal solutions.
Our Itch Zapper spray combines the five herbs explored below in a convenient spray bottle. I needed two 2 oz bottles to get me through the week, so I’m looking into making a 4oz bottle available in the future.
Even people who scorn Herbal Medicine as a concept often know that Jewel Weed, frequently found growing near Poison Ivy, is an effective antidote. This juicy member of the Impatiens family can be crushed between the fingers and applied directly to a rash to speed healing. It can be made into a salve as well (so can Plantain, see below) but I find that anything oily irritates Poison Oak/Ivy rashes for me, and that all I want is cooling, drying preparations. That’s why we tincture it to add to our Itch Zapper, and the simple tincture is also an effective wash or compress.
One of my favorite herbal allies is Witch Hazel. A gentle astringent with a deeply grounding scent, Witch Hazel extract will dry and cool skin irritation cased by Poison Oak or Poison Ivy. You can make a decoction of the dried inner bark by simmering a 1/4 cup in 2 cups of water or go get a bottle of the extract from the drug store. (I have made Witch Hazel extract and probably will again, but I’m not making it in quantity right now). Dickinson’s Witch Hazel is available most places and has no preservatives except the alcohol, so that’s the one I go for.
Whether using the decoction or the extract, you can spray or splash it right onto affected skin or make a compress by soaking a cloth and laying it over the area, adding more liquid as needed to keep it cool. Remember that the cloth can spread the antigen, so use caution (and multiple cloths, if needed).
Sweet, simple Plantain, always under foot and ready to help. Not only is Plantain soothing to the skin externally, the tincture or tea is also a gentle anti-histamine. Since the reaction to these plants is really an allergic one, taking Plantain tincture internally helps immensely.
Also, Plantain is everywhere, so if you find yourself itching in the middle of the night, you can immediately get some plantain leaves, pour some boiling water over them (better if they’re dried, but hey, use what you can get your hands on!) let the infusion cool and apply with a clean cloth as above. The tincture is also effective externally. If I had to chose one potion to deal with Poison Ivy/Oak, it would be Plantain tincture, since it’s effective internally and externally. That’s why CSA members are getting a bottle!
Mint is super cooling, and these rashes are super hot! Make a cup of Mint tea (Peppermint, Spearmint, whatevermint you got!) and use it as a wash or compress if you don’t have anything else around.
The inner gel of this amazing desert plant is cooling and hydrating. Since skin affected by Poison Ivy or Oak feels weepy, we generally want astringent, drying herbs to soothe it. But this can over dry the skin, leading to secondary irritation (that is, irritation caused by the treatment). That’s why we mix 100% pure organic Aloe Vera juice (not the gross green gel from the drug store, recently outed in the media as being super adulterated and, in some cases, containing NO actual Aloe Vera!) with tinctures of the above herbs and a few scant drops of organic vegetable glycerine when we make our Itch Zapper—the Aloe adds moisture back to cells dried out by the alcohol of the tinctures.
If you joined our CSA, you have a 2oz bottle of Itch Zapper at your fingertips and ready to use, alongside that bottle of Plantain tincture! If you didn’t, and don’t have any of these things around, a strong cup of green or black tea could be used as a wash or compress, as the tannins make a fine astringent. And in a real pinch, even plain water can provide relief, provided it is good and cold.
So don’t let vigilante plants keep you inside! Get out there, explain your mission to the protective poisoners of the gardens and woods, and enjoy yourself!