Tips for Removing Poison Ivy Safely

Poison ivy with its leaves of three.
Ed Reschke/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

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. Accidental contact with the leaves can leave a painful rash on bare skin, making this one weed that is just too risky to have around. Even if you prefer to garden organically, a chemical weed killer is the fastest, most effective way to remove this menace, so this is a case where you might want to consider compromising.

How to Get the Job Done -- Safely

  1. Know 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. The leaves, which grow on alternate sides of each stem, come in sets of 3 glossy, green leaflets that can be pointed, smooth-sided, lobed or saw-toothed. 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. For an in-depth identification of poison ivy and its impostors, see these pictures of poison ivy.
  2. Dress for battle: All parts of the plant contain a toxic 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 when removing poison ivy.
  1. Time your attack: 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).
  2. Cut plants to ground level: With shears or pruners, remove all the stems you can see and dispose of them in plastic garbage bags. Do not tear or rip the vines, as this may disperse the toxic resin into the air.
  3. Dig out roots if you can: If there are only a few plants to remove, use the shovel to remove the roots. Bag these also for removal.
  4. 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. If you have decided not to use a chemical herbicide, see my remark below in the Tips section.
  1. Dispose of properly: 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. If you used rubber gloves, discard these, as well.
  2. Disinfect your clothes and your 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 have on while removing poison ivy must be cleaned. Wash your clothing separately, and clean your boots or shoes with cold, soapy water and a garden hose.

Tips to Use Along the Way

  1. Poison ivy is a perennial plant that grows back from the roots and often spreads by means of underground runners. Removing poison ivy -- if it is a vigorous stand -- may take three or four tries.
  2. 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. Note that, while the above instructions are intended to help you avoid getting the rash, 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).
  3. Are you opposed to using chemical herbicides as a matter of principle? No problem. You will attack the project in pretty much the same way, except that you will skip step 6 above. It just means a lot more work (if the weed covers a large area), plus potentially exposing 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.

    Supplies That You Will Need for the Project 

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

    Learn More herePoison Ivy: Just the Facts