How to Safely Remove Poison Ivy

Careful, slow work is essential

Poison ivy leaves

Ed Reschke / Oxford Scientific / Getty Images

The presence of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on your property is no laughing matter. A few lucky people suffer no ill effects, but most people react to accidental skin contact with this perennial vine by developing an itchy, painful rash. For those with pronounced allergies, the effects can even be life-threatening if they come anywhere near it. Even if your pet doesn't react to these poisonous plants, they can spread it to you. This is a weed that is too risky to leave around, and even the most devoted organic gardeners often resort to chemical weed killers as the best way to remove this menace. The saying goes: "Leaflets three, let them be," but if this itchy vine invades your garden, it is not so easy to ignore it; you are better off just removing poison ivy altogether.

When to Remove Poison Ivy

A dry day with no wind is the safest time for removing poison ivy, especially if you will be using an herbicide spray (you do not want the herbicide blowing back at you, nor do you want it blowing on landscape plants).

The easiest time to remove it is springtime when the leaves are red and easy to spot. You will need to inspect your property frequently, as this tenacious plant is hard to eradicate completely and it often returns.

Project Metrics

The time required to eradicate poison ivy depends on the level of infestation, but it is a difficult plant to combat. You'll spend plenty of time, though not much money, to get rid of poison ivy. Avoid rushing this process; this is a toxic plant that should be handled slowly and carefully.

  • Working Time: Varies, depending on the amount of infestation. A moderate infestation requires a full day of careful work.
  • Total Time: Permanent eradication can take repeated work over a full year
  • Material Cost: $25 for a one-gallon container of ready-to-use brush-killer

What You'll Need

Equipment and Tools

  • Rubber gloves
  • Washable, tightly woven long-sleeve shirt and pants
  • Long socks
  • Shoes or boots that can be washed or hosed off
  • Goggles and breathing mask
  • Sharp pruning shears or a hand pruner
  • Sharp-edged shovel
  • Heavy black plastic garbage bags and ties

Materials

  • Herbicide containing glyphosate or triclopyr (for example, Roundup, Ortho Brush-B-Gon)
  • Rubbing alcohol

Instructions

  1. Identify the Enemy

    Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American plant that takes several forms. On most of the continent, it is a climbing or trailing perennial vine. In Western states, it is a shrubby bush that grows to about 3 feet tall. The leaves, which grow on alternate sides of each stem, come in sets of three glossy, green leaflets that can be pointed, smooth-sided, lobed or saw-toothed. The plant changes appearance through the seasons. Early in spring, the leaves are red, and in fall they can turn yellow or a bright scarlet-orange. The 1/4-inch fruits are dull yellow.

  2. Dress for Battle

    All parts of the plant contain a toxic oily resin that causes a blistering rash on any part of your body that it touches. So when removing poison ivy, always wear rubber gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into socks, and boots or shoes that can be hosed off later. Goggles and a breathing mask are also recommended. People who are highly sensitive to the resin of poison ivy may experience severe health issues just from breathing the surrounding air.

  3. Cut Off the Plants at Ground Level

    With shears or pruners, remove all the stems you can see and place them in plastic garbage bags. Secure the bags with ties when full. Do not tear or rip at the vines, as this may disperse the toxic resin into the air.

  4. Dig Out the Roots (If You Can)

    If there are only a few plants to remove, use a shovel to dig out and remove the roots. Also, bag these for disposal.

  5. Destroy What's Left

    If you have many plants spread over a large area, cut as much of the top growth as you can, and then spray the remaining roots, stems and stubs with a chemical weed killer containing glyphosate (such as Roundup) or triclopyr (such as Ortho's Brush-B-Gon). For thick, shrubby stems, spray directly onto the cuts you have made. Remember to use extreme care when handling these herbicides, as the spray will kill all other garden plants it touches. Always follow the directions on the label for safest use, and take care not to touch the liquid or breath the spray.

    Using a chemical weed killer is not mandatory. Poison ivy can be entirely removed simply by being very diligent about digging out the roots. But you should expect to spend a lot of time, and you may need to repeat your inspection and removal every year until the plant is entirely eradicated.

  6. Dispose of Debris

    Do not compost, shred, or burn poison ivy. Inhaling the smoke can cause serious injury to your lungs. Put the plant parts in heavy plastic bags, tie the bags securely and put them in the trash or haul them to an approved lawn-waste disposal facility. If you used rubber gloves, discard these, as well.

  7. Disinfect Clothes and Tools

    Tools used for removing poison ivy must be disinfected. Rinse your pruners and shovel, including the handles, with rubbing alcohol. Let them dry, and then oil the parts to prevent rust. Likewise, the clothes you wore while removing poison ivy must be cleaned. Wash your clothing separately from your other laundry, and clean your boots or shoes with cold, soapy water and a garden hose.

  8. Careful attention to this process should largely rid your property of poison ivy. But this is a very tenacious plant, so inspect frequently and don't be surprised if you need to treat the problem again. Immediately attention to any stragglers should leave your property entirely free of poison after a year.

Warnings

Remember that this job is inherently risky. No matter how careful you are, there is always the possibility that something can go wrong (and the more time-consuming the job is, the greater the risk will be). If your skin comes into contact with the weed while you are removing poison ivy, wash the affected area with a strong soap, using cold water only (hot water opens your pores and allows the toxin to seep in). Hardware stores and drugstores have specialty soaps that can remove the poison sap. Treat a rash with a drying lotion (such as calamine) or one recommended specifically for poison ivy rash.

Never try to dispose of poison ivy by burning it. Burning poison ivy releases the toxic oils into the air through the smoke; it can travel miles and create health problems for anyone in the general area.

Tips for Removing Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is a perennial plant that grows back from the roots and often spreads by means of underground runners. Removing poison ivy completely—if it is a vigorous stand—may take three or four tries.

If you are opposed to using chemical herbicides as a matter of principle, you can still eradicate the problem by manual means, skipping the weedkiller step. It just means a lot more work (especially if the weed covers a large area). And you will potentially expose yourself to the toxic resin for a longer period of time, thereby increasing your risk of coming down with a rash. It's your call.