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Volume 11 Issue 1
May/June 2005

A Traditional Knowledge Keeper Awakens Spirit Through Stories

A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

Leaves of Three, Let it Be: Poison-ivy & Its Antidote, Jewelweed

Anti-gymnastique Therese Bertherat: A Method to Reveal Your True, Harmonious & Balanced Body

Covenent Groups:
Finding Our “Selves” Through the Small-Group Experience


Leaves of Three, Let It Be:
Poison-ivy and its Antidote, Jewelweed

by Kahlee Keane
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 itchy aftermath.

Being totally familiar with poison-ivy is the
best preventive medicine of which I know.

Poison-ivy Quick ID
Rhus radicans - Sumach Family

General: low, erect shrub (4”–12”)
Flower: bloom in July; dull yellow-green in dense panicles found in the leaf axils
Leaf: compound; made up of 3 smooth, deeply veined, drooping leaflets with prominent veins; bright red in the fall
Stem: woody
Fruit: clusters; green maturing to white waxy berries
Root: creeping rhizome forming large colonies at nodes
Habitat: shady wooded places

Jewelweed Quick ID
Impatiens biflora; I. Noli-tangere
Touch-Me-Not Family

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 spur
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 as 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 cells deep 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 system.

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: rootwoman@sasktel.net or visit www:connect.to/rootwoman.


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