Itchy and Scratchy: Tracking Poison Ivy

May 22, 2014

Now you may start feeling itchy when you hear this next story.  For anyone who’s had poison ivy, just hearing the word can be enough to start you scratching. 

But as common as the plant is, there is actually very little scientific information about poison ivy, until now.

Scientists at Virginia Tech are looking at ways to control poison ivy naturally. And they’re asking for your help to do it.

“We’re interested in bugs that eat it or other pathogens that may cause disease on it.  And these are kind of things that everyday people can see in their own backyard.” John Jelesko is associate professor of plant pathology. He’s set up a website for people all over the country to join in the effort by identifying where they see poison ivy plants.

"One of the things we have on the website is a page that helps track when plants go from being dormant during the winter to releasing their buds, or so-called, ‘bud break’ and we’re looking for citizen scientists all over the nation to chime in and tell us when poison ivy is waking up.”

One of the few things that is known about poison Ivy is that climate change is helping it to flourish.  A Duke University from 2006 showed a direct correlation between increased CO2 and proliferation of the plant. Jelesko is looking to build on and/or confirm those results.

“And if we can collect this data over a decade or more, we can begin to see how the plant is changing as climate change occurs.”

Most people have heard the rhyme, leaves of 3 let it be to identify poison ivy, but it can be deceptive. Not all of it looks alike so citizen scientists who want to help on this project must be cautious.  For example, did you know that poison ivy plants also have flowers at certain time? The male and female have slightly different tiny yellowish green blooms.

Virginia Tech Senior Researcher Matt Kasson is working with Jelesko on the project.  Here’s his advice to any poison ivy hunters.“If you know how many petals are on a poison ivy flower, you’re probably too close.”

So use a zoom lens if you want to upload a photo to the website.  And remember, you’re not the only one who doesn’t want to get too close to a poison ivy plant.

Perhaps the reason that there isn’t a larger body of literature on poison ivy is so much research is the occupational hazard one has to kind of accept  to move forward with researching poison Ivy. You know, people aren’t very eager to sing on to do that kind of research but it doesn’t make that research any less important.”

In our next report, we’ll look at a potential breakthrough Kasson and Jelesko have made that could offer a natural way to control poison ivy in the landscape.

If you want to help the effort to control poison ivy, click here. You can upload photos and share information about poison ivy in your area.