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Poison ivy vines make dangerous decorations

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

If you're gathering your own vines or berries for holiday wreaths, do it carefully.

Grape and kudzu vines make great wreath framing, said University of Georgia expert Paul Thomas. "But when people are pulling down vines from a tree," he said, "they often make the mistake of grabbing poison ivy vines and mixing them in the wreath."

Most people looking for decorative vines look for the finger wide ones that become bendable when soaked in warm water. "Middle sections of poison ivy vine fit that description," said Thomas, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist.

Grapevines have long, flaky bark and may have remnants of a single tendril every so often. Woody kudzu vines are smooth all the way to the base. The base of poison ivy vines look "hairy," with "hundreds of tiny, root like things attaching to the tree or rock."

Left outside, where the oils are inert, poison ivy vines can be relatively harmless. "But when they get inside and get warm," Thomas said, "the oil can volatilize or be released from the vines. That's when everyone in the home gets poison ivy."

The best way to tell the difference, he said, is to get a good botanical book. Study how the vines look in your area. Make sure you can tell the difference. Many Web sites have images that can help you identify woody vines.

Thomas says 99.9 percent of plants in holiday decorations aren't deadly. But you still need to be cautious if you have kids or pets. A good rule is that if the berry is fleshy and soft, such as a grape, remove it. If it's hard or very firm, keep it.

"Mistletoe berries (which are fleshy and soft) are deadly but can simply be removed before bringing the greenery indoors," he said. "Holly, yew and juniper berries can make you very ill if you eat a great many. However, the taste is so unappealing that this rarely happens. One berry or two won't harm people or pets."

But nobody would want to risk having a sick child or pet during the holidays. So Thomas recommends placing any greenery with berries out of children's reach.

"If you have a wreath on a door or greenery on the mantel, you should be fine," he said.

Keep an eye out for berries that happen to fall onto the floor. They can be irresistible to small children. Dogs and cats usually leave the berries alone.

When it comes to Christmas trees, Todd Hurt says nature may have made your cut tree or live tree decision for you this year.

"Cut Christmas trees would be my recommendation this year," said Hurt, a program coordinator at the UGA Center for Urban Agriculture. "Even though we're getting a few sporadic rains now, it may not be enough to get live trees established in the landscape by next summer."

Remember, too, that dried greenery can be a fire hazard.

"All plant material, once it dries out, is flammable," Thomas said. "Christmas tree boughs are the most flammable. Common sense dictates that we don't place candles in arrangements of dried woodland materials."

Keep pine branches wet and use them just before your holiday events for the same reason you cut Christmas trees fresh and keep watering them. There are products available that you can spray on the leaves and stems to make them less flammable.

"It takes about 10 days for untreated woodland materials to dry out," Thomas said. "Hopefully, by then, the holiday season's over and you can make them into compost."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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