Devil Weed

There's no feeling quite like pulling on some heavy leather work gloves, trudging out into the yard and just yanking a whole bunch of weeds. We've got some miracle strand of greenery in our back area there, lush and verdant and fond of shooting inch-thick stalks five, six, seven feet up in a matter of weeks. (Writer disclosure: I actually called them "fronds" at first, hoping for some sort of rhyme or resonance with "fond," but checked and discovered that fronds are the leafy part and not the stem.)

I'm dead on about the growth, though: I pulled those suckers out of the ground and tossed their soaked carcasses (they retain tons of water, whatever they are) not two months ago, and here in early July they were already tall enough to irritate my deranged twit neighbor into venturing around the fence (the one he built to keep from having to look at my yard) and chopping off the weed-tops so he wouldn't see them peeking over anymore.

Now, I recognize that the average homeowner probably tends to excess plant growth a little more frequently than once every eight weeks. And I understand that there was likely some miracle napalm I could have sprinkled on the earth back in May to prevent the return of these insidious sprouts. But I don't think I necessarily deserved the debilitating poison ivy I somehow contracted during the grooming process. It wasn't the sprouts; I don't think, but it was a friend of theirs.

It was awful: one day after the weed clean-up, I thought I was coming down with a cold or something because my throat was swollen and it kind of hurt to swallow. The day after that I wasn't coughing, but I was itching -- a reddish and increasingly maddening rash that popped up just below my right wrist.

From there it "spread" (poison ivy is a done deal in the first half-hour after exposure; if you haven't washed it off by then you'll never get it out of where it is or put it anywhere it isn't) all the way up my arm to the elbow joint, relegating me to long sleeves on 90-degree days and a growing horror at the fluid-filled bumps sprouting up directly in my field of vision.

Itching is funny... it's not terrible, or terribly painful, but it is almost impossible to think of anything else while itching is going on. And it teaches you an infuriating lesson in accountability more or less every five seconds: "I want to scratch it. I could scratch it. I can scratch it, but if I do it'll just be even worse in a moment or two." Delayed gratification -- the faith that it will eventually go away if you just show some fortitude -- doesn't get much more literal, or annoying.

So I did some research, you know? WebMd is great, because no matter how you feel or what your symptoms are you can immediately find seventeen documented reasons why you'll be dead in a week. I took each dire warning and horror story (some of these folks looked more like they'd been exposed to flesh-eating bacteria than any kind of domestic plant) with a grain of salt and ultimately consulted the foremost authority on human biology I know of:

Tad Itamura, the pharmacist down at the CVS. This guy epitomizes what it means to be good at your job. He's always there -- always, for starters -- and he just knows everything about what's going on with your body and what you should probably do about it. And he'll tell you everything you need to know (plus just a little more, enough to make you feel thorough) with patience, friendliness and utter credibility.

And Tad said take Benadryl. So I bought some of that, and a tube of 1% Hydrocortisone he also recommended, and though my rash didn't go away right away -- he said it might get a little worse the next day, then start dissipating -- it did go away. Now all I've got is a couple of reddish patches that don't itch anymore, and in fact seem fairly desensitized to anything at all.

Oh, and I've got some wisdom for you: besides the obvious advice to wear long sleeves when confronting weeds and immediately laundering or discarding the clothing you wore to the fight, I heartily endorse one pretty unorthodox poison-ivy remedy -- the hair dryer.

Blow really hot air on your itch until it almost hurts, and you're good to go for at least several minutes. That's what I learned through all this.

Well, that and the fascinating fact that one pinhead-sized drop of urushiol oil (the nasty stuff in poison ivy, oak and sumac) could cause a rash in 500 people. All it takes is a billionth of a gram and you're hit. Penny asked, "why haven't we eradicated this plant yet?" and I had to admit I didn't know.

I still don't.

Vengeful little devil, that poison ivy.


Thomas said...


- aaron kohn said...

instead of a hair dryer, try compressed air. you know, the kind you use for computers - turn the can upside down and it will emit a toxic superchilled substance. the subsequent frostbite will kill off the nerve endings thus elminating the feeling of 'itch'.

works for me.

Jan said...

Be thankful you didn't scratch your face before you knew you had it. One time my brother SPREAD it on his face, just to be funny and he was deathly allergic to it...his face swoled up like a giant mushroom