Captain John Smith probably was walking through the woods with Pocahontas, favoring her with those charms of manner, of conversation and personality which later saved his life, when he said, “Oh! look at the pretty ivy.” And before she could stop him he reached down and picked a leaf. He probably wondered at the silvery laughter of the simple Indian girl, but he soon found out the reason because he wrote about it thus:
“The poisonous weed being in shape but little different from our English yvie. but being touched causeth redness, itchings, and lastly blysters, the which however after a while they pass away of themselves without further harme; yet because for the time they are somewhat painefull and in aspect dangerous, it hath gotten itselfe an ill name, although questionlesse of noe very ill nature.”
Such is the first account we have of that pest of the American summer woods.
There are several plants of the rhus family which cause poisoning. Poison ivy can be readily distinguished by the characteristic three-leaved branch. The leaves are dark green on the upper surface and velvety underneath. It may grow in the form of a vine or in that of a sort of bush.
Poison sumac always is in the form of a bush. Its habitat is in moist or swampy ground. The branches have from seven to thirteen leaflets on them, with a single one on the end. The berries, like the berries of the poison ivy, are cream colored.
The active principle of all rhus poisoning is virtually the same. In physical appearance it resembles a fixed oil, and it has a resinous quality. It is very adhesive, almost impossible to remove from the skin or clothing with soap and water. On account of its adhesive qualities it is easily conveyed from one part of the body to another.
A scientist who always has been sensitive to the poison says that if the surface which has come into contact with the plant is thoroughly washed with alcohol, kerosene, ether or gasoline, the effect of the poison will be confined to its original location. If the surface is thus washed within 10 or 15 minutes the effect of the poison will be greatly reduced.
A botanist who was for years tormented with poison ivy whenever he engaged in field work, recommends a solution of ferrous sulphate in water, any strength up to saturation. If used freely on the hands or face immediately after going into a region known or suspected of having poison ivy, it will prevent or stop the eruption.
In treatment after the eruption has actually appeared, there are many remedies, most of them of little value. The disease as Captain John Smith noted, lasts only a few days and the last remedy applied just before healing takes place gets the credit for cure. The most recent remedy to be recommended is benzoyl peroxide.