of Three, Let It Be:
Poison-ivy and its Antidote, Jewelweed
by Kahlee Keane
Poison-ivy is very abundant and everyone knows that it is
highly poisonous yet very few people can actually identify
it in the wild. When guiding a nature walk I am careful to
point it out yet there is always someone who will ask, “What’s
this plant?”, only to find out that they had a close
brush with poison-ivy!
How do you avoid contact with this plant? Your first and
best defense is to become so familiar with it that you can
spot it any time, anywhere. Take time to study it in all
its guises in all seasons and you will develop a sixth sense
about its presence, even when it is hidden from view.
As far as poisonous plants go poison-ivy has a rather interesting
way of performing its dirty deed and this knowledge may be
your second line of defense. Once you understand how a rash
from this seemingly innocent plant develops you can work
out a plan of attack. To this end I offer you the following
information on poison-ivy, as well as jewelweed, a plant
that makes a fine medicine most helpful in the poison-ivy’s
Being totally familiar with
poison-ivy is the
best preventive medicine of which I know.
Poison-ivy Quick ID
Rhus radicans - Sumach Family
erect shrub (4”–12”)
Flower: bloom in
July; dull yellow-green in dense panicles found in the
Leaf: compound; made up of 3 smooth, deeply veined, drooping
leaflets with prominent veins; bright red in the fall
Fruit: clusters; green maturing to white waxy berries
Root: creeping rhizome forming large colonies at nodes
Habitat: shady wooded
Jewelweed Quick ID
Impatiens biflora; I. Noli-tangere
General: annual; 1’–3’
Flower: blooms in mid-July to August; bright orange
pendant (depending on species may have red spots)
Sepals: 3, one which forms a pouch with nectar-filled
Leaf: many; light green; oval
Stem: weak; succulent
Habitat: moist areas (often found near poison-ivy)
Poison-ivy rash is caused by an oil (named “urushiol” meaning
lacquer in Japanese) found in the root, stem, leaf, and fruit
of the plant. Urushiol is released when the plant is bruised,
making it easy to contract the rash (known as Rhus-dermatitis)
in the spring and early summer when the leaves are tender
and easily broken.
The oil may be deposited on the skin by direct contact
with the plant or by contact with contaminated objects, such
shoes, clothing, tools, and animals. Severe cases have occurred
from sap-coated soot in the smoke of burning plants. Direct
contact is needed to release urusiol, so stay away from forest
fires, direct burning, or anything else that can cause the
oil to become airborne.
It takes only one nanogram (a billionth of a gram) to cause
the rash and urushiol (a non-volatile oil) stays active on
any surface, including dead plants, from one to five years.
Within half an hour after contact the oil fixes to skin
proteins, it penetrates the top layer of skin and binds to
in the epidermis. Any solvent or soap will remove urushiol
oil from the skin prior to bonding so by thoroughly washing
with soap you may prevent a reaction. However, once bound
or fixed to cell membranes this oil is virtually impossible
to wash off.
Once the oil is fixed the body goes into action, T-cells
are alerted, and an immune response is initiated. The body
releases defensive chemicals that cause the redness, itching,
and blistering. The rash and blister fluid don’t come
from poison-ivy at all but are produced by our own immune
If poisoning develops, the blisters and red, itching skin
may be treated with calamine lotion, Epsom salts, aloe vera
(fresh from the plant), or bicarbonate of soda to keep symptoms
under control. By far your best bet is to make use of an
annual plant called jewelweed—but the trick is to be
pro-active by making the medicine ahead of time.
Jewelweed is an annual, meaning that it flowers, produces
seeds, and then dies all in one year. If you know what you
are looking for, you can use it fresh by picking some of
the leaves and a little of the stem, then crush these plant
parts and rub the juice directly on the affected area.
Another way of assuring that you have this medicine “at
the ready” is to pick the leaves well before the plant
flowers, say, in late June, and make your medicine. This
way the plant has a good chance of producing flowers and
seeds before first frost. I do this by cutting the top one-third
off with a sharp knife or pruner leaving the rest of the
plant in tact, thus insuring the plant is able to proceed
with its intended life cycle. Jewelweed loses turgor and
wilts quickly. It also spoils at room temperature, so waste
no time in making your medicine.
Jewelweed doesn’t dry well because it is very fleshy
and juicy so I make a fresh and very strong infusion. This
means just covering plenty of plant material with boiling
water and letting it simmer for at least half an hour. Let
it cool and whiz around in a blender. Then, strain and freeze
the mixture in ice cube trays. When frozen, store in zip
lock bags and label clearly with herb name and date of preparation.
These cubes not only fill a medicinal need but the cool ice
feels great on sensitive blistered areas. Apply frequently.
Being totally familiar with poison-ivy is the best preventive
medicine of which I know. Making jewelweed ice medicine is
your second line of defense—just in case.
Kahlee Keane, Root Woman, offers courses, medicine, and
nature walks throughout the summer months at various locations
in Saskatchewan. For more information contact Kahlee by writing
to Box 28035, Saskatoon, SK S7M 5V8; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www:connect.to/rootwoman.