How to kill poison ivy

Photograph by Bmerva via Wikimedia. Above: Photograph by Bmerva via Wikimedia.

You have two choices when it comes to killing poison ivy: a natural method or a chemical poison. Both will work, but chemicals may work faster. For more on the pros and cons of a DIY natural weed killer versus a chemical herbicide such as Roundup, see Landscaping 101: Homemade Weed Killer.

Natural Born Killers

Photograph by Justine Hand. For more, see Landscaping 101: The Pros and Cons of Homemade Weed Killers. Above: Photograph by Justine Hand. For more, see Landscaping 101: The Pros and Cons of Homemade Weed Killers.

If you want to avoid chemicals, you have a few choices:

Manual Labor: Put on long sleeves and pants, tape your pants and shirt cuffs to prevent skin exposure, pull on a pair of heavy gloves, and dig out as much poison ivy as you can. The trick is to get the roots, which means digging down a few inches—at least six—beneath roots and then reaching in to pull them out. This job is easier if the ground is soft; try it after a rainy spell. Be warned that you inevitably will overlook a few little roots. Watch for new growth and pull it out as soon as possible to weaken the plant, or at least to try to break its spirit.

Boiling Water: I am a big fan of pouring a kettle of boiling water onto weeds to kill them. This works best if the plant you want to kill is growing in a crack in a path or next to the driveway or somewhere other than a garden bed full of desirable plants. Boiling water will kill anything it touches. Caveat: When it comes to poison ivy, the underground roots will survive a dousing. After the boiled leaves and stems die back, new growth will emerge. As soon as you see it, pour on more boiling water. Over time, the rate of new growth will slow.

Photograph by Esculapio via Wikimedia. Above: Photograph by Esculapio via Wikimedia.

Smothering: You can cover a patch of poison ivy with a plastic tarp or big piece of cardboard to kill it. Afterward, check the perimeter of the treated area for new growth; underground roots that were outside the jurisdiction of the tarp may send up shoots.

Potions: The main ingredients in DIY homemade weed killer are salt, vinegar, water, and dish soap (which helps to broadcast the spray farther). Justine investigated the pros and cons of homemade weed killers—some of which are not as “natural” as you might think—and offers a comprehensive report at Gardening 101: Pros and Cons of Homemade Weed Killers.

Chemical Warfare

The two most commonly used chemical herbicides in the war against poison ivy are Roundup and Brush-B-Gone, whose respective active ingredients are glyphosate or triclopyr. These are chemicals I don’t use in my garden, but if I had a backyard overrun by poison ivy and small children tromping through it, I might want a speedy solution to the problem. If you spray chemical herbicides on poison ivy, it will die fast. As with other methods, watch for new growth and spray again immediately.

Photograph by Katya Schulz via Flickr. Above: Photograph by Katya Schulz via Flickr.

How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy

Go gaga for goats!

Its a well known fact that goats will eat nearly anything.  Goats will happily clear out patches of poison ivy without any itchy side effects.  Don’t have a goat?  Drinking goat’s milk is said to dramatically reduce your reaction to poison ivy.  Science has proven that the urushiol contained in the plant does not transfer to the milk so there is no risk of catching poison ivy from drinking the milk.  I have found no concrete evidence that goat’s milk will help your allergy, but many, many people swear it helps!   Likewise, it is said that soap made from goat’s milk helps relieve itchy rashes.

Goats?  Come On, Give Me Some Advice I Can Really Use!

Goats are awesome, but I don’t know of any goat-rental services.  If you’re going to tackle this problem yourself, the first thing you need to do is protect yourself.  Once again, the poisonous urushiol in poison ivy is in every part of the plant.  You will need to wear gloves, long pants, long sleeves, etc.  Armor yourself as much as you feel necessary.  Mike is highly sensitive to poison ivy so he is careful to cover his face with a mask and his eyes with goggles.

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Mike Armed For Battle With Poison Ivy

Mike, Armed For Battle

After tackling the ivy, be sure to wash your clothing right away.  Wash your hands with soap in cool water.  (Hot water opens your pores.)  Shower with luke warm water.  Wash your loppers or any other tools you used.  The oils can remain active for over a year.  Get ’em off.

Pulling poison ivy out by hand can prove difficult.  They have a strong, long root system.  The roots can be over a yard or two long.  Pulling out the entire root is hard.  You’ll find that this method is often only a temporary fix.  They almost always grow back.  That being said, if you are going to pull them out by hand, the best time to do it is winter or early spring while the oil production is low.  This is also the best time to cut any large vines growing up trees.

Clipping a Poison Ivy Vine

Clipping a Poison Ivy Vine

The vines rely on the strong root system to keep them alive.  If you cut them, anything above the cut will die.

After spring when your poison plant (hehe) has leafed out, you can spray the leaves with a systemic herbicide like Round-Up.  These weed killers are absorbed through the leaves then enters the root system, killing the plant.  Be careful to only spray the poison ivy leaves.  You don’t want it absorbed into the leaves of plants that you want keep.

Many people think that by using it full strength, they are giving a heavier dose.  This is not the case.  Systemic herbicides are carried through the plant by the water in the mixture.  If you don’t add water, it doesn’t work properly.   Less poison is carried to the roots.

Don’t Want To Use Chemicals?

Not to worry!  There are more natural alternatives for spraying leaves.  Here is a simple recipe that you’ll love:  Vinegar, salt and dish soap.  That’s it!

Safe Weed Killer

Kill Weeds With 3 Simple Ingredients

Start with a gallon of white vinegar.  The “average” vinegar is 5% acidic and will work just fine, but if you can find one that’s 10% or 20% your mixture will be more potent.  Pour the vinegar into a pot and heat it over the stove.   Add 1 cup of salt and stir until the salt dissolves.  Let it cool, then add 2 tablespoons of liquid dish soap.

Vinegar, when diluted with a gallon of water makes a good fertilizer for acid-loving plants like azaleas, rhododendrons and blueberries.  When mixed full strength with salt, it works very much like Round-Up. The dish soap helps the mixture to stick to the leaves.

Pour the mixture into a spray bottle.  Set the sprayer to stream (not mist) to for better control.  Once again, be careful where you spray because it will damage any leaf that it hits.

Be Patient

Spraying your plants with a systemic herbicide or the vinegar mixture will not work overnight.  After its absorbed into the leaves it takes time before it destroys the root system.  Give it 2 weeks, then spray the plant again if necessary.  It may take more than one application to do the job.  Poison ivy is a tough plant with strong roots.


Dead vines of poison ivy can still contain potent amounts of oil for quite some time.  Wear gloves and wash up after moving them.  It is best to bury it or if you have woods behind your house, you can pile it up where no person or pets will come in contact with it.

Do Not Burn It!!

Even dead poison ivy can contain urushiol that can be released through burning.  Inhaling the smoke can inflame your lungs, bronchial tubes and nasal passages.  It can get into your eyes.  Its nasty stuff.  Burning poison ivy was the inspiration behind the creation of mustard gas that was used in WWI.   Please, please, please do not burn your poison ivy.

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Here is what Mike has to say about getting rid of poison ivy.


Why Is Poison Ivy Spray Better Than Vinegar?

People should not mess with Poison Ivy, Our control works and gets down to the root. Use a professional.  Home remedies such as vinegar rarely work effectively and take way longer.

How Much Does Poison Ivy Removal Cost?

Poison Ivy Spray starts at $129.95 +tax per application (based on average sized outbreak- one confined area (less than 100 sq. ft.). Larger properties or multiple locations on the same property are an additional cost.  (ravines, long hedges, multiple gardens) 

What You Need to Know About Our Poison Ivy Spray Service

  • Weather: the application must be done on a day that allows the product to dry, in order to be effective (usually 30 minutes).
  • Regrowth: due to the nature of Poison Ivy, it can regrow by way of seed, rhizomes, stolons or root stalk. Even after an application by LawnSavers, there may be the regrowth of new plants which require further applications to control.
  • The poison Ivy Spray is not a preventative application.
  • Subsequent applications (within 60 days) start at 79.95+tax (min charge).
  • Manual removal: LawnSavers does not manually remove the plant. Once the plant has gone completely brown or dried out after the pesticide application, it may disintegrate.  If there is any to remove, wear proper protective gear and avoid any skin contact (even though the plant is dead). Bag and remove the plant from the area as necessary and dispose in garbage. Do NOT compost. ‎
  • Surrounding areas: as the technician sprays the foliage, there is no guarantee that surrounding plants will not be affected by the product. If a surrounding plant does get product on it, there may/will be some damage or LOSS to the plant. LawnSavers is not responsible for additional plant death.

Poison ivy

The plant everyone is most familiar with for causing skin reactions is poison ivy, and it even has the saying “leaves of three, leave them be,” as the leaves always appear in groups of three leaflets, no more. However, this can be rather vague, as other harmless plants have a similar appearance, like Virginia creeper and boxelder.

The leaves of poison ivy always alternate on the stem and the end leaflet is always on a longer stalk than the laterals ones. Identifying poison ivy can be challenging because of the varying appearance it can have. The leaves can be glossy, hairy or dull while the leaf edges can be smooth, toothed or wavy.

Poison ivy prefers moist, wooded areas but can be found in ornamental plantings and various other areas. It will grow as a small shrub or a high climbing vine.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, as it is covered in an oily resin called urushiol. This can cause painful rashes if it comes in contact with your skin, but it can also be transferred to clothing, tools or pet’s fur, so people can have reactions later on if they touch something carrying the toxin.

When it comes to removing poison ivy, never burn the plant, as the smoke contains the oil and can irritate the lungs and possibly cause severe allergic reactions. Cultural controls include continual clipping or mowing the plant near the ground level. Ivy found in landscape beds can be dug out but take care to wear gloves and long sleeves to prevent skin contact.

If the plant’s spread is extensive, there are numerous herbicides that can help control the pest. Glyphosate or triclopyr can be used to help kill off poison ivy but should be used with the proper dosages and intervals.

Close up photo of poison oak leafs

Pacific poison oakPhoto: Wikipedia

Poison oak/poison sumac

Close cousins to poison ivy, are poison oak and poison sumac. Poison oak also tends to have three leaflets, but not necessarily all the time, so this rule of thumb is less dependable for this plant. It can grow as a shrub or a vine and has leaves that are similar to white oak leaves. Another distinguisher is the leaflets are covered in fine hair.

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Meanwhile, poison sumac grows as a tall shrub or a small tree and has seven to 13 leaflets in a group and bright red stems. Poison sumac can be told apart from harmless sumac by noting that the berries are not perfectly round.

Photo of Poison Sumac

Poison sumacPhoto: Wikipedia

While poison sumac has the same urushiol oil, it has higher concentrations of the toxin making skin reactions more serious.

Controlling poison oak and poison sumac is similar to killing poison ivy. Poison oak can be manually removed, or it can be smothered with an impervious material. Poison sumac takes some persistent trimming over one or two years to starve it to death.

Herbicides are the main go-to for dealing with both poison oak and poison sumac. Cutting the stems back on either plant and applying herbicides such as glyphosate or triclopyr will ensure the plant takes it in immediately, but repeated applications may be necessary. Take care to remember that glyphosate is non-selective, and the effectiveness also depends on the timing.

Giant hogweed

Despite the alarming name, giant hogweed is an attractive plant that looks similar to Queen Anne’s Lace. This invasive plant is known to grow in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. It was also just recently found in Virginia.

The plant grows between seven and 14 feet tall and has large umbrella-shaped flower clusters. It has large leaves and green stems covered in purple splotches.

The plant is dangerous thanks to its sap, which contains chemicals that cause the skin to be extremely sensitive to light, resulting in painful blisters. Contact with giant hogweed can result in long-term sunlight sensitivity and even blindness if the sap should get in a person’s eye.

Photo of giant hogweed

Giant hogweedPhoto: Wikipedia

While it may be tempting to consider chopping down the plant and being done with it, the New York State Department of Health advises against this, as it will only put up new growth and put you at risk of being exposed to the sap.

Root cutting and flower head removal are some of the manual control options which prevent the plant from spreading further. Like the other problem plants, glyphosate is considered an effective option for killing off giant hogweed.

However, it is important to monitor the site after the plant is gone, as hogweed seeds can remain viable in the soil for 15 years. This is why it is crucial to revegetate the area with other plants to prevent soil erosion and provide competition for giant hogweed seedlings.

Wild parsnip

Another plant that causes “phytophotodermatitis” or sensitivity to the sun after being exposed to the sap, wild parsnip is similar to giant hogweed.

Photo of Wild Parsnip

Wild parsnipPhoto: Wikipedia

It can be identified by its symmetrical leaves with saw-toothed edges and tiny yellow flowers that are clustered together. It grows up to 4 to 6 feet tall.

It tends to be found along roadsides, in pastures and prefers sunny conditions. It is considered invasive in certain areas and is listed as a noxious weed in several states.

Careful mowing at the right time can help clear these plants out. It is important to mow when the plants have produced flowers but not seeds (late June or early July in most regions) to prevent them from spreading further. The stems tend to be tough, so often a traditional lawn mower will not do the trick.

Chemical control tends to work for in the early spring or late fall.

Remember no matter what plant you’re dealing with, it’s important to ensure that your skin is protected with long pants, long sleeves, boots, and gloves.

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