Weeding out poisonous plants


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Staff Writer

Summer means that trees and flowers are in full bloom, but picking certain plants in Monmouth and Middlesex counties could lead to burns almost as hot as the August sun.

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When enjoying the great outdoors, one should take steps to identify and avoid poisonous plants commonly found in the area that can cause rashes, itches, burns, and other deleterious effects.

The most well-known offender, as well as the most common in central New Jersey, is poison ivy, which can cause skin irritations like rashes, blisters, itching and swelling when people come into contact with it.

“If you don’t know poison ivy, then I would say anything that has leaves of three — let it be,” Manasquan Reservoir Park Naturalist Susan Harasty said.

The plant features two leaves spreading in opposite directions from the same stem with a third leaf extending in between them, although this is not the only way that poison ivy takes shape.

“Poison ivy has different types of growth forms, so it can be just a small ground cover [or] it can be a vine that climbs up a tree,” Harasty said, adding that a poison ivy vine resembles a “hairy rope.”

Unlike plants such as poison sumac — a treelike bush with green flowers and white berries that appears in wet, swampy areas and is not commonly found in backyards — poison ivy takes root just about anywhere.

“The seeds are spread by birds, and they’ll grow wherever there’s a space for them to grow,” said Bill Hlubik, agricultural agent for Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County. “Typically, you’ll start to see them in areas that people are not maintaining.”

According to Hlubik, who serves as a professor at Rutgers, poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak — all of which can be found in Monmouth and Middlesex counties — contain an oil known as urushiol, which causes skin irritation.

People have varying degrees of sensitivity to urushiol. Whereas some people will begin to experience reactions just being near it, others may come into direct contact with it and only have minor irritation. Burning urushiol-producing plants will also trigger irritation by releasing the compound as a fume that, when inhaled, can be life-threatening by causing inflammation of the lungs and gastrointestinal tract.

“The problem with this oil is that, once it comes in contact with the skin, it can penetrate within 20 minutes,” said Dr. Lisa Silbret, a dermatologist who practices in Manalapan.

Silbret explained that after a person comes into contact with urushiol, it seeps into and binds to their skin. Rashes, which can last up to three or four weeks, may not begin to develop for another 24 hours after the first exposure, so people may not necessarily know they have been affected until much later.

“About 15 percent of people don’t get a reaction to this oil, but 85 percent of us do,” she  continued, pointing out that a person’s sensitivity to urushiol can increase or decrease over time.

Additionally, urushiol can still bind to the skin from indirect contact, as the oil can remain active on surfaces like clothing, tools, and more for up to five years. Dogs — who are not affected by urushiol — can carry it on their fur and spread it to humans, so pet owners should be careful and wash their animals after they have been outside.

She also dispelled the myth that urushiol-induced blisters are contagious, but picking at them can risk infection.

Although poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak are native to the area, they are not the only plants to keep an eye on. Hlubik described a number of invasive species, such as giant hogweed, which can cause serious burn-like lesions and scarring following contact with the plant and exposure to direct sunlight, as well as the prickly “mile-a-minute” weed. He did acknowledge successful methods of controlling the spread of “mile-a-minute” weed have been put in place, however.

If these plants appear on private property, because they are hazardous to touch, removing them can be difficult.

“It’s not a quick fix,” said Diane Larson, county horticulturist for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Monmouth County. “You’re not going to take care of it with one application. You’re going to have to be persistent with it.”

Poison ivy, for example, often grows through other plants, so spraying herbicide may kill desired plants. Instead, Larson recommends brushing herbicide on its leaves, especially during the fall when plants try to absorb more moisture. Once it withers from the herbicide, the poison ivy can be uprooted — but it will still contain urushiol and be a potential hazard. Hlubik, on the other hand, suggested contacting a landscaper for removal services.

Even wearing gloves may not be enough of a protective measure since urushiol may seep through them, and people risk exposing themselves to the compound when removing the gloves. And because urushiol can remain on the surface of gloves, even after they have been washed, Larson suggests simply throwing away gloves that have come into contact with poison ivy or similar plants.

“The best way to deal with it is not to get it,” Silbret said.

As advice on how not to get it, Silbret encouraged wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and gloves. Over-the-counter products such as “Ivy Block” lotion can also help by forming a small protective barrier that impedes urushiol from binding to the skin.

Anyone who does come into contact with urushiol can first try washing it off. If a rash begins to form, calamine lotion on the affected areas can reduce itchiness as well as taking short showers, baths with oatmeal or baking soda in the tub and applying cool compresses with ice. Silbret warned against using topical antihistamines, as they can exaggerate the rash.

If the rash leads to swelling of the eyes, face or genitals, covers more than one-fourth of the body, causes fever, difficulty breathing or infection, Silbret said to immediately seek medical attention.

For help identifying poisonous plants, people can take a picture and send it to their local cooperative extension or master gardener.

Hlubik also encouraged people to attend the Middlesex County EARTH Center’s Open House from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 20 at Davidson’s Mill Pond Park in North Brunswick, where experts will be on hand to help identify poisonous plants and invasive species. The day will also feature live music, food and other attractions.

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