Many of us often wonder about edible plants in nature. What plants can you eat and which ones should you stay away from?
If you’re camping and/or backpacking, you may encounter a scenario where you’ll need to eat plants – maybe you ran out of food or your backpack ended up being overtaken by raccoons.
So, if you’re developing a list of edible plants, you need to go through all your common forest vegetation. If you’re asking yourself, can you eat poison ivy? It’s time you found out.
What is poison ivy?
You’ve probably heard of poison ivy, but not everyone has encountered it. Poison ivy is an Asian and North American flowering plant which has a pretty good reputation for causing itching, irritation and allergic rashes when touching it.
The rash is caused by urushiol which is a clear liquid in the plant’s sap. Poison ivy is actually eaten by many animals, including birds. However, to humans it’s simply seen as a weed. Most people are allergic to poison ivy, so it’s safer not to eat it.
Why would you want to eat poison ivy?
If you’re wondering why you would even want to try to eat poison ivy, well, there are various reasons. Some people see poison ivy simply as another source of vegetation to consume.
However, other people, such as backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts want to take extra precautions and prepare their bodies for possible exposure to poison ivy.
In case of an emergency where you have no food, being able to eat the vegetation around you will come in need for your survival.
Poison ivy is known as an allergen and even though it is possible to eat it, it is recommended not to do so as it can have severe or even fatal consequences.
How to identify poison ivy
Before we show you ways of eating poison ivy, it’s important that you know how to identify it in the wild.
You may find it difficult to identify poison ivy from other plants. There are some distinctive characteristics which you’ll use in order to tell it apart from the others. Let’s take a closer look at some of its distinctive traits.
Look for the vine
Poison ivy is very identifiable by its thick vine. In addition, it always has a cluster of three leaves. If you’re trying to find other characteristics to go by, poison ivy isn’t so easy to spot.
Though poison ivy is known for growing upwards like ivy, it can also grow as a single bush as well. So, the rule of thumb is, if it has a cluster of three leaves per vine, it’s poison ivy.
Poison ivy leaves tend to be bright to dark green and have a waxy texture on top. However, from underneath, the leaves are light green and fuzzy. However, throughout the seasons they do change color.
- Spring: the leaves are bright green
- Fall: the leaves are bright red or orange
Does the poison ivy have fruit?
Depending on the season, poison ivy may be blooming. In this case, they’ll have berries. Poison ivy berries are white or cream-colored with the fruit staying on the plant throughout winter and spring.
So, why all the fuss about poison ivy? Is it really that bad? Well, first you need to know how it interacts with your body and its immune system. So let’s just talk about that now!
Your immune system and poison ivy
Many people know poison ivy for its rash-like effects when encountering it, but there’s an explanation behind it.
Your body’s immune system is designed to protect you against bacteria and viruses which attack the body. However, with poison ivy, it’s different. The oil found on the plant called urushiol touches your skin and instigates an immunity response called dermatitis.
But what exactly happens in that encounter with urushiol? Immunity cells called T lymphocytes (T cells) recognize that the urushiol molecules are foreign.
The T cells alert the body by sending out inflammatory signals call cytokines which deliver white blood cells to the area of inflammation.
These white blood cells then turn into macrophages which eat the foreign substance and in the process damage healthy tissue which is why your skin becomes inflamed.
This allergic reaction to the poison ivy is called delayed hypersensitivity. Delayed hypersensitivity means that the allergic reaction doesn’t occur until several hours after or possibly days after the first contact.
Many people when they first come into contact with poison ivy are not affected and do not receive an allergic reaction. However, everyone has different levels of sensitivity, so reactions vary.
If you’re unsure if you’ve come encounter with poison ivy, here are some of the symptoms that are included:
- Difficulty breathing
These symptoms usually depend on the amount of urushiol that has come into contact with your skin.
If you find yourself having a serious allergic reaction to poison ivy, make sure to visit a doctor ASAP.
Myths about poison ivy
There are many myths floating around about poison ivy that need to be debunked. Here are some of the myths that you need to know about poison ivy.
- Poison ivy is contagious: This is a very common belief which just isn’t true. You cannot get dermatitis from touching someone else unless they still have urushiol on their bodies or clothing.
- Everyone is allergic to poison ivy: This isn’t the case actually. Though it is a common allergen with 85% of the population having an intolerance to it, 15% of the population have no reaction to poison ivy.
- Once allergic, always allergic: It’s a very common association to allergies that once you experience a reaction, you’ll always have a reaction. Every individual’s sensitivity varies over time and season. Many people who were allergic to poison ivy as children no longer have the sensitivity to it as adults. However, you can build immunity to poison ivy.
- Urushiol does not spread: You may think that if you come into contact with urushiol, it’ll spread throughout your body. This isn’t true. Urushiol is a thick oil which stays only on the area is touched. You may think that it looks like it’s spreading, but that’s only because your body is developing an allergic reaction to it over a long period of time.
- Poison ivy is not active year-round: Many people think that poison ivy is only active during the spring when the leaves are bright green. However, poison ivy is active year-round. This is important if you’re starting to work on building your immunity in the winter. So, regardless of the season, you need to start on a low consumption of poison ivy leaves.
Now that we’ve debunked the myths about poison ivy, it’s time we showed you how to become immune to it.
How to become immune to poison ivy
You may be wondering, how can you become immune to poison ivy? Is it even possible?
Though a large percent of the population who come into contact with poison ivy do have an allergic reaction, it might be possible to build immunity.
In fact, with many allergic reactions, you can actually build an immunity to them, thus, completely eliminating the allergic reaction.
Once you’ve build an immunity, you’ll be able to eat poison ivy freely and won’t have to fear contracting an itchy, red rash.
So, if you’re wondering, can you eat poison ivy? The short answer is yes, you can. Can you eat a bowl of it right away? No, you need to be patient as you are most likely allergic to it.
As I said before, 85% of the population is allergic to poison ivy. And since the plant is not extremely nutritious or tasty, going through all the trouble and risks to become immune to it isn’t really worth it.
But if you do choose to try it, always do so under medical supervision. Here are a couple ways you can become immune to poison ivy.
- The allergic symptoms to poison ivy usually occur when you haven’t been exposed to the plant before. In order to prevent an allergic reaction, sensitivity usually decreases with age and repeat exposure to poison ivy. Once your body has come into contact with poison ivy multiple times, it stops viewing the urushiol oil as a foreign substance.
- During the springtime, poison ivy leaves are at their smallest. Eating one small leaf a day will slowly adapt your body to the urushiol. As the season continues, the leaves will grow bigger and the dosage of urushiol will slowly increase which will help you gradually build immunity.
- You can make yourself poison ivy tea with fresh leaves. However, as you’re drinking it, you need to start off at a low consumption and slowly increase because you’re trying to build immunity. Never do this without actual advice and supervision from a doctor!
- Once you’ve developed an immunity to poison ivy, you’ll be able to use it in cooking. However, we recommend that you don’t try this until you’ve developed a strong enough immunity, clinically confirmed by a trained specialist.
Whether you choose to eat poison ivy leaves or drink poison ivy tea, you want to make sure that you do so initially in small amounts.
As time progresses, then you can increase your consumption of poison ivy. Make sure that you’re aware of your body’s reaction to the ivy so that you can regulate your consumption. But again, there are so many other things out there you could eat – no need to go through all the trouble of becoming resistant to this particular one.
Poison ivy remedies
If you’re trying to build immunity, you may encounter times where you drank too much poison ivy tea and now have an allergic reaction.
Before you build your immunity to poison ivy, you need to get rid of the allergic reaction. Then, you can start back from the beginning and slowly increase your dosage of poison ivy.
So, to get rid of your itchy, red rash, here are some natural remedies. For more resource on how long until poison ivy rash appears, see our earlier article on this.
Note: If you have an allergic reaction, always consult your doctor as these caused by poison ivy can be extremely dangerous and life threatening, especially when ingesting poison ivy intentionally or not.
1. Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera is a great option that you can use to directly place onto the inflamed area. Make sure that the aloe vera gel you use is organic and high-quality. You can also use an actual aloe vera plant as well.
2. Baking Soda Paste
Common kitchen baking soda is another great remedy to relieve itchiness from poison ivy. Place ½ cup of baking soda into a bathtub of warm water.
Or you can use 3 teaspoons of baking soda with one teaspoon of water and mix it into a paste. You can apply the paste directly onto the inflamed area.
3. Organic Witch Hazel
If you have witch hazel, you can dab a small amount onto the inflamed area. Witch hazel not only acts to relieve the itch but it also cleanses the area.
4. Oatmeal Paste
You probably didn’t think that oatmeal paste wasn’t a remedy. But it’s a great way to relieve the rash.
You want to cook a small amount of oatmeal and directly place it onto the inflamed area. Make sure that you don’t apply the oatmeal onto the skin when it’s too hot.
It’s the most ideal if you place the oatmeal onto the area when it’s warm. That way, it’ll be able to cool itself while on the affected area. You can also mix the oatmeal with a teaspoon of baking soda which will act as an extra itch-reliever.
5. Soap and water
Sometimes, soap and water just does the trick. Because urushiol is an oil, using plain water will not be able to remove it.
Using dish soap will help to break up the oil that’s left on your skin. Dish soap will minimize the spread of the poison and reduce the rash.
Now that you know the remedies in case you have an allergic reaction, you’ll probably feel safer near poison ivy.
Through frequent interaction with poison ivy, tea and consumption of its leaves, you’ll be able to build immunity to it.
But remember, in order to be successful at building immunity, you need start off with consuming small amounts of poison ivy.
This make take some time until your body becomes adjusted, so be patient. As time passes, you’ll be able to ingest regular amounts of poison ivy without any problems. And always do this under supervision from a trained doctor.
Or just do what most of the people on this planet do and don’t try to eat poison ivy. The risks far outweigh the benefits, in my opinion.
Before you go on your next trip, see our piece on more camping safety tips for you and your family.
Daniel is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.