Rash behavior: High Falls’ John Messerschmidt eradicates poison ivy without weedkillers

Photo of John Nesserschmidt in action by Dion Ogust.

There are probably more unsavory gardening tasks needing some brave soul’s willing attention, but I can’t think of one. Eradicating poison ivy – called “sister ivy” by certain local permaculturists – requires common sense, a little basic knowledge and a HAZMAT suit, all of which John Messerschmidt acquired in his personal battle with Toxicodendron radicans. This began when he moved to High Falls seven years ago, to a property with “a lot” of poison ivy (no surprise to any of us who reside upstate, is it?). Messerschmidt didn’t want to use harsh chemicals to kill the invasive plant, and after some research found that the most effective way to deal with it is to pull it out by the root.

Doing so, of course, exposes you to urushiol: the dreaded component that causes skin to itch and swell and generally makes you miserable. Touching poison ivy leaves, stems and roots; certainly inhaling the smoke of a pile of burning poison ivy; even digging around in the dirt where roots have left their contaminant – all can cause an allergic reaction. Thus the HAZMAT outfit.

Messerschmidt says that even with that much protection, he sometimes breaks out in a rash. Yet he has been yanking it out of people’s yards and gardens for a few years now. It took a while to rid his own property of the noxious plant. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you take this on the road?’” he says of his part-time vocation. “I put an ad in the paper, and people started hiring me by the hour to get rid of their poison ivy. It took quite a while to come up with the protection; even that’s not full protection – it’s just another layer. Bugs dive-bomb your face, so I got a net to cover my face. Now I’m impervious to bugs or any stray strand of poison ivy or a vine accidentally brushing across my face.”

Messerschmidt is a green building consultant when he’s not playing tug-of-war with poison ivy, a task that he says consumes three to four days a week during the summer. “I’ve figured out the characteristics of it. There’s nothing you can do about these thick, heavy vines, probably 20 or 30 years old, growing up old trees. If you strip them off the bark, the bark is exposed and it will kill the tree. I just cut it off, go to the base and dig out the roots. They’ll kill the tree eventually. It feeds off the tree – takes the trees that are already weakened or dead anyway, like a parasite.”

He talks about how it lives next to other vines, like Virginia creeper, and how recognizing the root’s reddish-brown color is important. Every couple of inches of the rhizome will either come up or go down, so you have to get all that. You’ll never get it 100 percent, he says.

After the first treatment, or after doing one section of a large yard, Messerschmidt will do “maintenance” work on already-cleared property. If he does get exposed, he uses Technu at the end of each day, Zanfel and jewelweed (“It doesn’t really help that much, but it feels pleasant when you do it”) or Benadryl if it gets too bad. He has heard of the Native American preventative of eating a tiny leaf at the beginning of each spring. “I haven’t had the courage to try it,” he says, laughing.

Meanwhile, it’s suiting up like a soldier of chemical warfare and pulling the vicious stuff out by the root. For more information on John Messerschmidt’s Poison Ivy Patrol, call (845) 204-8274. He charges $40 an hour: a fee that his customers gladly part with to have a poison ivy-free environment.


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