'A poison ivy crisis,' and he's the crisis manager

Umar Mycka (left) and his crew, Raffia Mohammed, Taufick Ibrahimah, and Abass Mohammed, hold a 19-foot poison ivy vine that they removed from the yard of Bustleton homeowner Pat Gusoff. Mycka, a gardener at the Philadelphia Zoo, has a small poison ivy removal business.
Umar Mycka (left) and his crew, Raffia Mohammed, Taufick Ibrahimah, and Abass Mohammed, hold a 19-foot poison ivy vine that they removed from the yard of Bustleton homeowner Pat Gusoff. Mycka, a gardener at the Philadelphia Zoo, has a small poison ivy removal business. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

Pat Gusoff had what Umar Mycka calls "a yard full of trouble" at her Bustleton home.

It wasn't so much the honeysuckle, mulberries, bittersweet, chokecherries, and English ivy, although they can be a nasty business. No, it was all those shiny, three-leaf shoots of Toxicodendron radicans, the dreaded poison ivy.

Mycka knows this North American scourge intimately from four decades of work as a gardener/groundskeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo. Since 2008, he has also had a small business (idontwantpoisonivy.com) devoted exclusively to its removal, mostly by hand.

Mycka calls himself "the poison ivy horticulturist," and his is one of a growing number of such enterprises in the eastern United States, where poison ivy is a particular problem. And this is peak season.

Plants are waking up and seedlings emerging. Runners are creeping across yards and woodlands, over fences and walls. Ropelike aerial roots are shooting up the sides of trees like archers to a target.

Got itch yet?

Poison ivy got its name in the 1600s from Capt. John Smith, the explorer, who noted its resemblance to English ivy. Connecticut is the nation's poison ivy epicenter, Mycka says, "but the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware region is not far off."

It's spread by birds, which eat the seeds. Development and habitat destruction, and our own gardening habits, are factors, too, Mycka says. We build homes and attract birds that like to eat from feeders, explore our gardens, and perch on our decks, buildings, and fences.

Duke University researchers have also determined that rising carbon dioxide levels are causing poison ivy to grow faster and produce more potent urushiol, the pale, resin-like substance that causes the plant's signature rash, swelling, and blistering.

"We have a poison ivy crisis now," Mycka says. "People can't identify it and remove it. They're so disconnected from nature."

That was not the case with Gusoff, a retired public schoolteacher who loves to garden and tried for two years, unsuccessfully, to get rid of her poison ivy.

Gusoff, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and other ailments and walks with a cane, became so overwhelmed by "the monster" quietly infiltrating her yard that she avoided the family's aboveground pool for two summers.

And got zapped anyway.

In August, she broke out in a bodysuit-like rash after snuggling with Delilah Mercedes, her senior-citizen golden retriever now nicknamed "the culprit."

"She enjoys exploring the backyard. It's a jungle out there," says Gusoff, who finally called Mycka.

One day in late April, he arrives with a crew of three. They're wearing long sleeves, long pants, double gloves, and wrist-to-elbow Tyvek protectors, knee pads, and boots.

(We resist the temptation to chant: Leaves of three, let it be! Hairy rope, don't be a dope!)

Using Japanese gardening knives and serrated grass sickles with hardened steel blades, the men follow the vines 15 feet down the trunk to the base of a 30-year-old white spruce, and out into the yard.

"It doesn't matter if you start above or on the ground, as long as you get it all," says Mycka, who estimates that Gusoff's vine is nine years old, 19 feet long, and 25 pounds.

A mere mini.

In 2013, Mycka used crowbars to pry a 50-foot poison ivy vine off a hackberry tree along Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park. Counting rings, he determined that the female vine - yes, there are male and female plants - was 38 years old. Cut into five pieces, it tipped the scales at 506 pounds.

"This is an interesting job," says Mycka, who collects poison ivy books and art in his Overbrook home.

He grew up in the city's Somerton section, always wanted to be a gardener, and became fascinated by toxic plants when he was a Boy Scout.

He signed on at the zoo in 1974 and, after seven years of evening classes, earned a two-year associate's degree in horticulture from Temple University Ambler.

You'd think "the poison ivy horticulturist" would be happy that it's such a problem. Actually, says Mycka, who hosted a poison ivy conference in Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013, "I want to educate people. There's so much suffering. I really don't want to have 20 crews out pulling poison ivy."

Poisonous in every season, poison ivy doesn't die in winter. Bird-dropped seeds can germinate and wind up climbing a tree 15 feet away. In three years, that vine can be 25 feet up the trunk. In 40 years, just imagine.

If you're lucky, you're among the 15 percent of the population whose immune systems don't register poison ivy as a threat. Mycka's crew is among them, but he is not.

Yes, the boss occasionally gets the rash. But, as you might imagine, he is very, very careful.

So careful that when a now poison-ivy-free Gusoff approaches to shake his hand, Mycka backs off. "We'll do a virtual handshake," he says.

"God bless you," his grateful client responds from two feet away.

vsmith@phillynews.com

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