Becoming Poison Ivy Experts

Learn to identify this pervasive itch-inducing plant to protect yourself and your loved ones!

My poison ivy adventure began almost three years ago. The kids and I had just moved into our home. Joshua was still wrapping up his job in Alabama, while I started the unpacking process.

With a long day of unpacking ahead of me, I sent the kids outside to explore the fenced-in backyard. Twenty minutes later, Rose and Will interrupted the unpacking to show off the pretty white berries they had found.

After admiring the berries’ beauty, I warned the kids not to eat them and went back to work. But this nagging thought kept coming to mind that I ought to investigate their newfound source of berries.

The kids gladly led me to the little tree they had discovered behind the shed. Huh, I thought, leaves of three. It almost looks like poison ivy, but I don’t think poison ivy grows in trees. And I’ve never heard of it having white berries. 

Our internet wasn’t set up yet and my phone had splotchy reception, but it was enough to discover that yes, indeed, poison ivy can grow into small “trees” and it does actually have lovely white berries. Yep. My kids had just had a grand time picking poison ivy berries.

I’m paranoid about poison ivy, but tried not to panic. Unpacking stayed on pause while I scrubbed the kids in cold water and wiped down all the surfaces they might have touched with rubbing alcohol. Needless to say, they did not love this experience.

Despite my poison ivy paranoia (that is probably due to horrible reactions my mom and brother had to it), I realized just how little I actually knew about this pervasive plant. One of my homeschool goals is to explore and learn about local flora. Becoming poison ivy experts is a very important part of that goal!

Identifying poison ivy

Deer and bears nibble poison ivy leaves, goats devour them, dogs and cats roll around in them, birds eat the berries, but we humans can’t even touch touch poison ivy safely.

Sensitivity varies a lot from person to person. Often, children don’t get a rash after touching poison ivy, but repeated exposure breaks down their resistance to urushiol, the itch-inducing oil in poison ivy.

It’s not just the leaves that contain urushiol. The stems and roots do too. Even an old, dead vine can spread the oil. It’s especially dangerous if poison ivy gets mixed in with a burn pile because inhaled oils from the smoke can cause systemic reactions.

So, how can you identify this annoying plant? I’m still working on becoming a poison ivy expert, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Learn how to recognize this pervasive plant so you can enjoy the great outdoors safely!

Leaves of three

Let’s start with the “leaves of three” part. It can grow as a creeping ground plant, wind its way up trees, or grow into a smallish “tree”, but all its forms have leaves of three. These leaves are usually a shiny green in the spring and summer that change to vibrant shades of red in the fall. Sometimes, the emerging leaves are reddish. Sometimes they have a few toothed edges. Sometimes they don’t.

Of course, poison ivy isn’t the only plant with leaves of three. Strawberries, raspberries, fragrant sumac, and many other plants share that trait. You can usually distinguish poison by the shape of the leaves, the smooth stems (branching off from a sometimes hairy vine), and the fact that the middle leaf is usually on a slightly longer stem than the other two leaves. (If you look closely in the top right of the picture above, you can see the longer middle stem.)

This isn't poison ivy, or poison oak or poison sumac. It's Virginia Creeper, a plant that often grows near poison ivy.

Virginia creeper plant

See the five leaves? This is not poison ivy. It’s also not poison oak or poison sumac like I used to think. This is Virginia Creeper. Like poison ivy, Virginia creeper has shiny green leaves that turn red in fall. To make it even more confusing, sometimes the early leaves do have groups of three.

Even though it’s not poison ivy, Virginia creeper is a good plant to recognize because it very often grows near poison ivy. Both vines might even grow up the same tree! A small percentage of people are also allergic to Virginia creeper.

Hairy vines are another poison ivy warning sign.

photo credit 

Hairy vine

All I’d heard was the beginning of the poison ivy rhyme, “Leaves of three, let it be.” There’s more: “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.”

Not only do the leaves contain urushiol, the vines and roots do too. Even dead vines and roots can cause problems because the oil can live on dead plants for years. When the leaves are out, it’s easier to identify poison ivy, but in the winter this helpful ditty points out an easy way to spot climbing poison ivy on trees or fences: the hairy-looking aerial roots.

This hairy vine trick didn’t apply to the tree/bush growing in our yard. From what I have read, the hairy vines are only on creeping ivy where the roots aren’t all in the ground.

Berries white-- a useful poison ivy identifier

The green flowers that turn into greenish white berries (photo credit)

Berries white

The last part of the poison ivy ditty is “Berries white, run in flight.” (credit)

Judging from personal experience, this is a great line to teach your kids. Hopefully the poison ivy you encounter never gets to this stage (because birds love the berries and spread poison ivy far and wide.) But if it does, the greenish white berries are an extra warning sign to stay away!

The other poisons

Poison ivy can grow just about anywhere but the desert. It survives brackish water and nearly full shade. It springs up in forests and backyards across America. Though first christened poison ivy by Captain John Smith in 1609, it’s even more common now than it used to be.

Want some good news? Poison oak and poison sumac are rare. Like poison ivy, poison oak has leaves of three, but poison sumac has 2-7 smooth leaves that grow on a red stem.

After battling the aggressive poison ivy vine behind our shed for almost three years, I was thrilled to learn that poison sumac has never been documented in my state (it’s most common in the Northeast and swampy ares in the Southeast.) Poison oak has never been found in my county. Check your area to see whether these other poisons are a local problem.

Becoming poison ivy experts

Poison ivy forms vary slightly from region to region making it tricky to identify. But with the help of the silly little ditty “Leaves of three, let it be– Hairy vine, no friend of mine– Berries white, run in fright,” even children can start becoming poison ivy experts. Learning to recognize and avoid this annoying plant makes time spent in the great outdoors even more enjoyable.

Articles and more information, for nerds like me:

How to remove poison ivy, safely

Extracts of poison ivy studies

Steve Brill’s (beautiful) picture guide to poison ivy

MDC Most Irritating Plant

UMW Poison Ivy Guide

USDA Virginia Creeper Guide (pdf)

Jewelweed Study Abstract

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  1. says

    Oh, the little plants of poison ivy. We used to have so much in our yard, but we’ve worked to get it out. There are still times in the summer when I can be seen walking around our yard with a plastic bag or glove over my hand, head down as I search for that little plant before it grows large. When they are small they are usually easy to pull up, then just time them inside your plastic bag and dispose of it. I’ve also sprayed vinegar on some plants on a hot summer day and had the satisfaction of watching them die. 🙂
    Oh, and I’ve heard that if you want to help build an immunity to the plant, drink milk from goats who have eaten poison ivy. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to actually make “poison ivy tea” and drink it though!

    • anna says

      I’m definitely not brave enough to drink poison ivy tea, though I scrolled through abstracts of several studies saying it actually is fairly effective. (Shudder.)

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