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8 Ways To Kill Poison Ivy (Without Killing Other Plants)

8 Ways To Kill Poison Ivy (Without Killing Other Plants)

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Poison ivy the notorious culprit behind red, itchy, blistering rashes. It is a rigorous and toxic plant common throughout most of the continental United States.

Poison ivy tends to grow in wild, untouched areas but often thrives alongside roads and trails or on the edges of plots of land. So how can we get rid of this ill-famed plant?

The most effective method to kill poison ivy without killing other plants is to rid of the plant by hand. You need to ensure that you remove the roots to prevent regrowth. Other less effective solutions include boiling water, smothering the plant, vinegar, homemade solutions, or herbicides.

Before you go berserk and frantically pull at the poison ivy by hand, let’s first take a look at how to identify poison ivy, the necessary safety precautions, and the most popular methods to rid of poison ivy.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

You’ll find poison ivy growing in forests and wetlands, along streams, on beaches, and in urban settings like along roadsides, parks, and even backyards.

However, poison ivy prefers partial sunlight, so you’ll frequently find it growing where land has been disturbed, for example, along trail edges, landscapes, and fields.

Eastern and Western Poison Ivy

There are two general types of poison ivy — eastern and western poison ivy — which look strikingly similar but have somewhat different geographic ranges. In addition, eastern and western poison ivy occasionally interbreed in areas where their ranges overlap.

Both variants of poison ivy stretch along the ground, but eastern poison ivy inclines to climb and trail along with trees, shrubs, walls, and fences, clinging to structures with its hairy rootlets.

How to Identify Poison Ivy Leaves?

Poison Ivy with Three Leaves

Ever heard of the phrase “leaves of three, let it be. Berries of white, best take flight.”?

Each poison ivy leaflet has a little stem at its base, attaching the leaf to the stalk or branch that secures it to the main vine.

Note that the middle leaflet of the threesome generally has a longer leaf stem than the two accompanying leaflets on its sides.

In addition, poison ivy leaflets tend to be unsymmetrical with pointy tips, smooth edges, or serrated teeth and are approximately twice as long as they are wide. The leaflets are generally between 2 to 5 inches long.

Additionally, poison ivy leaves look quite different during the four seasons. So, here is an overview of how to identify poison ivy leaves during each season.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like in the Spring?

Poison ivy grows new leaves in the spring after losing them during the winter. Young leaflets initially sprout as dark mahogany or crimson red shiny leaves. They later gradually turn green and lose their sheen over time.

Although mature poison ivy leaves mostly have a pointed tip, beware that the new leaves can initially have a rounded tip.

In addition to the new leaflets, the poison ivy plant may grow florescence of tiny, green, or white flower buds or berries as soon as the first leaves come out.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like in the Summer?

Most of the poison ivy leaves will be green in the summertime, but there may be a couple of leaves left with a reddish hue during early summer.

Furthermore, poison ivy vines aren’t hesitant to carpet and raid an entire area by weaving themselves into grasses and plants. It can even create a wall of foliage alongside fences, walls, or buildings.

Subsequently, individuals need to be especially careful during hot summer days while walking through grass fields and trails in shorts and short sleeves.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like in the Fall?

Poison ivy is one of the first color-changing plants during the fall. The plant’s leaves are set ablaze in vivid red, orange, and yellow colors.

Note that these beautiful poison ivy leaves are still dangerous and can give you an ugly rash.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like in the Winter?

Poison ivy loses all of its leaves in the winter, leaving a display of hairy vines on tree trunks or walls. These common hairs are rootlets that attach the vine to its host.

Poison ivy vines can be thick to six inches, with horizontal branches sticking out from the main stem.

Note that poison ivy can still give you a nasty rash if you touch the hairy vines despite losing all of their leaves.

Other Characteristics of Poison Ivy

Poison Oak
Poison Oak

As it turns out, various other plants also have three leaves; for example, the poison oak, skunkbush, boxelder, or Virginia creeper. These plants are often mistaken for poison ivy due to their similar leaves.

Fortunately, there are a few helpful tips to identify poison ivy.

  • Poison oak tends to as a low shrub, and its leaves aren’t as pointed as poison ivy. In addition, poison oak is generally only habitual in the west and the South-eastern United States.
  • Poison ivy has alternate leaves, whereas box elder has opposite leaves.
  • Poison ivy only has three leaflets, while the Virginia creeper generally has five leaves. However, the boxelder can display three leaves during early spring but will generally have five to seven later, accompanied by “helicopter” seeds.
  • Poison ivy spouts white or yellowish berries, whereas the Virginia creeper has blue-black berries and the skunkbush has dark red berries.
  • Poison ivy has thick, hairy vines, and the Virginia creeper has thick vines covered in fair-colored tendrils.
  • Lastly, note that poison ivy takes on versatile shapes like shrubs, ground cover, thick green vines covering walls, or a single plant.

Overall, be extra cautious while spending time in urban areas or disturbed places as poison ivy generally thrive in these locations.

So, if you aren’t sure whether the plant is poison ivy or not, it’s best to leave it alone altogether. Instead, consider using a plant app to help you identify the plant, or put on a pair of heavy-duty garden gloves and take a cutting to your local nursery.

Lastly, consider calling poison ivy removal services to help you with the issue.

How to Kill Poison Ivy Without Killing My Other Plants?

Poison ivy is a pest that none of us want growing in your backyard. However, I assume the well-being of your other plants is of as much importance as ridding the poison ivy.

So, here are some practical approaches to kill poison ivy without killing your other beloved plants.

1 – Remove Poison Ivy Manually

Garden Gloves and a Trowel

Many alternative methods pose a risk to your other plants. However, one strategy that guarantees the success and safety of your other plants is manually removing poison ivy.

Furthermore, you’ll need to ensure that you remove the whole plant (especially the roots) to prevent it from regrowing.

Here’s how:

  • First, get all the necessary tools. You’ll most likely need a sharp trowel or a high-quality shovel and a pair of garden shears.
  • Second, ensure that you wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, heavy-duty garden gloves, and gumboots. Your goal is to completely cover toy skin to avoid any contact with the poison ivy plant.

So, for extra precaution, consider tucking your sleeves and pants in and use duct tape to secure the cuffs.

  • Third, assess the weather conditions. Digging out the poison ivy plant during windy or rainy weather can be dangerous as the urushiol spreads into the air.

However, digging up the plant after the rain is ideal as the soil will be soft and easy to dig.

  • Fourth, dig about 3 to 6 inches deep until you hit the roots of the poison ivy plant. Try to remove the entire plant, including all the plant’s roots. Once you successfully remove the whole plant, carefully bag it up for garbage. Be sure to double-bag the poison ivy to prevent garbage collectors from getting a rash if the bag accidentally tears.

Warning: do not ever burn poison ivy plants; the flames are toxic if ingested, causing inflammation and dangerous respiratory problems.

Note: Although you’re wearing gloves, never use your hands to tear back these leaves of a poison ivy plant because this may disperse the plant’s resin (urushiol) into the air and ultimately affect those in the vicinity. 

  • Lastly, wash your clothes and tools immediately after using them. The oily resin can stay active for years if it remains on your clothes. So, wash your clothes at least twice to ensure all the urushiol resin is off your clothing.

Notwithstanding, the chances exist that you may overlook several small poison ivy roots. So, you will have to keep an eye out for new growth and remove the new plant as soon as possible.

If you aren’t up for the job (no one can blame you), consider paying the poison ivy removal services to do it for you.

2 – Use Boiling Water to Kill Poison Ivy Plants

Pot of Boiling Water

Another effective solution to kill poison ivy is to pour boiling water straight from the kettle onto the plant. This method works best if the poison ivy plant grows next to the driveway or in a crack in your backyard garden path.

It’s crucial to remember that boiling water kills or hurts anything it touches, so beware if you have other plants nearby.

In addition, pouring boiling water over poison ivy plants will not kill them immediately; their hardy underground roots will survive the initial dousing. New growth will quickly emerge after the scorched leaves and stems die back.

So, as soon as you notice new growth emerging, pour another dose of boiling water onto the plant. The poison ivy plant will weaken over time, and the new growth rate will slow down, eventually killing the plant.

Note: remember that boiling water will kill other plants too. So, ensure to use this method on isolated poison ivy plants.

3 – Smother the Poison Ivy Plant to Kill It

Smother poison ivy plants by placing a sheet of heavy cardboard or plastic tarp to kill the plant. This strategy is not only practical to kill poison ivy plants, but it also prevents other plants from being killed in the process-a win-win situation if you ask me!

Even though smother may be effective, be sure to check for “runner” shoots. Runners are underground roots that grow beyond the jurisdiction of the cardboard or tarp. In time, they may send up shoots, producing new poison ivy plants.

Another simple alternative to killing poison ivy is to cover the plant with a 12-inch-thick layer of coarse wood chips. However, this method will take about three months for the poison ivy to die completely.

4 – Use Vinegar to Kill Poison Ivy

Spraying White Vinegar

The active in vinegar that kills weeds and unwanted plants is acetic acid. Acetic acid is a compound that draws out the moisture of the unwanted plant’s leaves.

Note that vinegar only kills the top growth of the poison ivy plant, which means that it only destroys the stem and leaves, and unfortunately, the plant’s roots system remains firmly intact.

So, although vinegar is an effective solution, it’s only short-term and less effective if the poison ivy is a mature plant with a developed root system. Unfortunately, the poison ivy will return the following year if you do not eradicate the roots.

All household vinegar kinds effectively eliminate poison ivy in the short term; however, more substantial vinegar concentrations (horticulture vinegar) are available at garden centers that may be more effective due to their high concentrations.

However, horticulture vinegar contains a more concentrated level of acetic acid and is, therefore, more toxic when it gets in your eye or if you accidentally ingest it. So, be extra careful by wearing protective eye gear and ensure you or a family member does not mix horticulture vinegar up with kitchen vinegar!

In addition to the health of your other plants, acetic acid will ultimately influence the pH balance of your soil, making it more acidic. This effect can be good or bad depending on the type of plant, but luckily it only lasts a few days to weeks depending on the concentration.

However, it would be best to be cautious when spraying the poison ivy, be sure not to spray on windy days as the vinegar can blow onto the leaves of other plants, damaging them too.

5 – Non-Toxic Homemade Spray to Kill Poison Ivy

You can create a non-toxic homemade spray to rid of those unwanted poison ivy plants.

You will need the following:

  • Spray bottle
  • 1-gallon of white vinegar
  • 8 drops of dishwashing liquid
  • 1 cup of salt

Add the white vinegar and salt into a large pot and heat the mixture until the salt dissolves. Once the mixture is cool, add the dishwashing soap and stir well.

Soap will increase the spread of vinegar and salt and increase the absorption of desiccants as it breaks down the waxy surface that protects the leaves.

Be sure to cover all your desirable plants before spraying the poison ivy plant, as the mixture can be toxic to plants nearby if the wind blows the mixture onto their leaves and stems. Then, spray the solution directly onto the poison ivy plant.

6 – Use a Household Remedy to Kill Poison Ivy

Spraying Poison Ivy

If you are looking for another solution to eliminate the nasty poison ivy plant in your backyard, you can use household products to do the trick.

You’ll need the following:

  • Spray bottle
  • 2 cups of bleach
  • ½ cup hydrogen peroxide
  • ½ cup of salt

Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Then, ensure to cover all your desirable plants, and lastly, generously apply the mixture to the poison ivy plant.

Note that as effective as this method may be, bleach and salt will alter your soil’s pH, which can have adverse effects on your other plants if you use large concentrations.

7 – Use Herbicides to Kill Poison Ivy Plants

Natural treatments to rid of poison ivy are preferable, but herbicides are efficient poison ivy killers. The two prevailing active ingredients in herbicides are glyphosate or triclopyr.

Note that these chemicals are unhealthy and carcinogenic. So, try only to use herbicides when you need a speedy solution.

Unlike the more natural home remedies (vinegar or salt), glyphosate is systemic, where home remedies are topical. So, this means that plant will absorb glyphosate, and it will travel through the whole poison ivy plant, including its roots.

Then, ensure that you spray the poison ivy on a dry day with no wind to prevent the herbicide from blowing onto your and your other plants. The best season to get rid of poison ivy is spring, when the plants are easy to spot. However, my advice to you is to remove the plant as soon as you see it.

You’ll need the following:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Long pants and a long-sleeve shirt
  • Rubber boots
  • Goggles
  • Breathing mast
  • Pruning shears
  • Shovel
  • Herbicide
  • Garbage bags
  • Rubbing alcohol

Start by removing the visible poison ivy stems with your pruning shears and place them in a garbage bag (consider using two garbage bags for extra precaution). Remember not to rip the leaves or stem of the plant as this will disperse the resin into the air.

Spray the remaining stems and roots with your chemical herbicide after cutting as much of the poison ivy’s top growth. Remember to wear your mask and goggles and take extra precautions when spraying the herbicide. It can kill other plants that it touches (consider covering your other plants before spraying the herbicide).

Warning: due to glyphosate being systemic, even a drop might kill a desirable plant compared to vinegar that might only cause some browning if accidentally split onto your other plant.

Lastly, wash your clothes and equipment thoroughly with warm water.

Following this process generally rids most poison ivy plants, but it is a hardy and tenacious plant. So, to be sure, frequently inspect the treated area to ensure that no regrowth has occurred.

8 – Eliminate Poison Ivy Naturally

Putting Down Grass Seed

This last suggestion is not to remove or kill poison ivy but rather a preventative method. The best way is to fight nature with natureplant grass seed around the area to eliminate further poison ivy growth.

Poison ivy ceases to grow in locations with full grass lawns (it’s not clear why).

So, if you aren’t up for the hassle of killing poison ivy manually or making home remedies to rid of poison ivy, consider planting grass to prevent further growth of the hardy poison ivy plant. The grass seeds will eventually take over the area and inhibit the poison ivy.

Planting grass is a natural and lovely possible solution, but it requires a whole lot of patience.

Call Professional Poison Ivy Plant Removers to Help

If you have an infestation of poison ivy plants that have taken over your backyard for years, it’s best to hand the job over to professionals poison ivy removers.

Professional poison ivy remover will know precisely how to kill and remove the poison ivy plants without unwanted injuries.

Furthermore, you can even call for professional help if you don’t feel comfortable removing a small invasion yourself. In addition, if your DIY solutions and attempts fail, call the professionals instead of further risking injuries.

Professional services might be slightly costly; however, they will save you a lifetime of inconvenience and potential rashes.

Final Thoughts

All in all, it boils down to whether you’d like to follow an environmentally safe method or if time is of the essence and you’d rather cut straight to the chase with an herbicide.

Remember that even though herbicides effectively kill poison ivy, as little as a drop can severely damage or destroy your preferable plants. So, instead, cover up your plants before spraying the poison ivy plant. In addition, you’ll need to cover up your eyes and mouth to keep safe too.

For a safer route, try home remedies or horticulture vinegar.

Overall, manually removing poison ivy is the most effective solution to rid of poison ivy and prevent your other plants from being killed.

Before you go: Now is the perfect time to start tracking your gardening progress, and I created a garden journal to do exactly that. Click the image below to see it in action and to get your own copy.

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Marlene B

Tuesday 9th of May 2023

I found your article interesting, but there is inaccurate information. You state "As it turns out, various other plants also have three leaves; for example, the poison oak, skunkbush, boxelder, or Virginia creeper. These plants are often mistaken for poison ivy due to their similar leaves." However, Virginia Creepr is a FIVE leave plant that does cause similar skin reactions as Poison Ivy, but for different reasons and te Boxelder has three to seven leaves.

You also stated that "Remember that even though herbicides effectively kill poison ivy, as little as a drop can severely damage or destroy your preferable plants." As a child growing up on a farm in Upstate New York (with TONS of Poison Ivy, Sumac and Oak) then as an adult having it on my own property the herbicides are NOT EFFECTIVE; the ONLY true way to get rid of these evasive plants are to remove them by their root systems and ensure you are property covered (gloves, long sleeved shirt and long pants).

Myron Smith

Friday 19th of August 2022