Poison Ivy remover Helaine Hughes

For 13 years, Helaine Hughes of Greenfield has operated Poison Ivy Removal Company, one of the few businesses of its kind in the country.
Photo by Mike Morin
Helaine Hughes of Greenfield has operated Poison Ivy Removal Company|!!| one of the few businesses of its kind in the country.

Finding a business niche and serving it well goes a long way in establishing a successful enterprise. Following years in corporate America, Helaine Hughes of Greenfield followed her passion and started Poison Ivy Removal Company in 2003, one of a handful of companies nationally that remove invasively poisonous plants like poison ivy. After 13 years, Hughes has grown the service to being nearly financially sustainable. It even helped her get out of a traffic ticket once.

Q. Tell me about your pre poison ivy removal life.

A. I worked for BASF Corp. in Bedford, Mass., for 14 years, and for nine of them I was the complaints department, and it was actually a good job because it was a really good product and I talked to lots of people. I had fun.

Q. What got you involved with eradicating a plant that you’re personally allergic to?

A. In the 1970s, my father brought home a pair of pheasants, and we needed to make a cage where they could roost in a tree. The only place was behind the barn and, there was poison ivy so we removed it. Fast-forward to 2003 when I’m a housekeeper for a family in Dunstable, Mass., which I jokingly call the poison ivy capital of the world. They had poison ivy starting to grow back after they had redone their stone wall. So, I asked her if she could keep the kids inside for 20 minutes and I pulled all the poison ivy and she said I should be paid for that and she became my first customer.

Q. How pervasive is poison ivy in New Hampshire?

A. It’s all over the entire Eastern Seaboard all the way to the Mississippi. Locally, it’s very widespread in Amherst and Bedford, Hollis, which is right next to Dunstable. I go all over the place from Augusta, Maine, to Lake Champlain to Springfield to the Cape.
When we’re in our hazmat suits, people will walk by and they’ll sort of look over and they’re very curious and probably wondering how many hundreds of thousands of dollars their property value’s going to decrease because there’s some hazmat situation. So I always sing out, ‘Poison ivy removal’ and they relax.

Q. When is the poison ivy season?

A. Usually in spring people start calling after it’s sprouted and they start doing their yard cleanup, and they’ve been up all night scratching and then found my website. As far as I know, I’m the only one in northern New England. There are a few other folks in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. A lot of them spray. My niche is that I pull it out, roots and all and use no chemicals whatsoever.

Q. This sounds like hard manual labor. Is it difficult finding people who want to do this?

A. Yes, because we’re in the hazmat suits, making inside the suit 10 to 20 degrees hotter than the outside, so you have to be a certain kind of person to handle that heat.

Q. Where do you find the people who want to pull poison ivy in the hot sun?

A. I put a sign at the end of the road, I’ve tried Craigslist and the word goes out among my friends when I’m looking for help. Some people are good at it and some people will try it for a day and say, ‘No, this is not for me.’

My employees run the gamut. My daughter started working for me when she was 11. I have a few people who aren’t going to school that work for me starting in April and then they go until November. I’ve had several home schoolers work for me.

Q. Why doesn’t everyone react the same to the oil from the poison ivy leaves?

A. Some people have more sensitive skin and they get a worse rash. I have a daughter with red hair. She has the sensitive skin and gets it like crazy, but she still wants to work with me. I cringe when I see the rash on her. It takes two to three weeks to get rid of the rash.

Q. If poison ivy roots are imbedded in stone walls, do you dismantle them then put them back together again?

A. Yes. We usually don’t have to take it completely apart. Poison ivy grows because birds eat the berries and then they take the waxy coating off when it goes through their digestive tracts, so when they poop it out the seeds are ready to sprout. Poison ivy loves stone walls because of the heat it retains at the end of the day. Poison ivy also loves rotting stumps because of the constant heat from rotting process.

Q. What do you do when the source of the plant is in the neighbor’s yard?

A. In that case, I would suggest pushing it two or three feet from your fence then use a salt and vinegar spray to keep the tendrils from growing back to your fence. The spray is enough to kill tendrils but not entire plant.

Q. Is there enough work to make a stable living?

A. Not at this point, but I’m hoping soon. I do taxes in the winter right now.

Q. How many similar businesses are there in the country?

A. About 20 or so. I know that because I go to the poison ivy conference every year. We’ve got plant physiologists, a weed science professor from Virginia Tech that always shows up with fascinating experiments. We’ve got folks that spray, folks that are writers, people that do invasive weeds in general, people interested in starting poison ivy removal companies. It runs the gamut.

Q. Give me a quick remedy if I find myself with a poison ivy reaction.

A. One of the things I found is to go to the beach. As long as you’re in and out of the sea saltwater, you don’t itch. Also, there’s Zanfel cream, which relieves the itching. There are several homeopathic remedies out there, some with jewelweed which is supposedly the antidote.

Q. Is it true you got out of a ticket because of what you do?

A. One time I was driving at 4:30 in the morning, going through (a nearby small town center), and there was a police car and the policeman was staring at us. What I didn’t realize is that I switched ladders and didn’t have a red flag at the end of the ladder and it was out more than four feet.

So the officer pulled me over and I was getting my license and registration and then I heard the ladder being touched. And I jumped out of the truck and said, ‘Don’t touch that! It’s covered with poison ivy. Did your uniform touch the back of the truck?’

I was horrified. So I jumped out with my water to wash him off and clean his hands. And he said, ‘You know, it’s kind of funny.’ And I said, ‘It is?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’ve seen you go through town and I know exactly what you do and I still touched it.’

Then I went to the dump later that day to drop off the poison ivy and the guy that works at the dump yelled across the entire place, ‘What’s this about you giving the cops poison ivy?’ I did not get a ticket.

Categories: Q&A