Avoiding Poison Ivy

Ah yes, the sweet breezes of spring gently turn one’s thoughts to… poison ivy? Yep, it’s back people. And if you live near woods, it’s everywhere.

Many people have a hard time identifying poison ivy because there are many similar-looking plants out there. For instance, raspberry and blackberry leaves are clustered into groups of three just like poison ivy leaves. However, berry leaves have serrated edges and the leaves themselves are generally textured by veins and tiny folds in the leaf. Poison ivy leaves are smooth, though they may have slightly jagged edges.

Wild raspberry leaves - note the spiny stems and serrated edges

Top of a wild raspberry plant - raspberry leaves look a lot like poison ivy until you take a closer look

Another commonly mistaken plant is Virginia creeper, a harmless cover plant that has five leaves radiating from the same stem when mature, not three. Virginia creeper likes the same kinds of conditions as poison ivy, so they are often found together. Virginia creeper also sometimes climbs trees.

Virginia creeper has five leaves, but when young sometimes only has three

Poison ivy can be identified by these hallmarks: three smooth, sometimes shiny leaves – one extending from the end of the stem and two radiating from the same point a little farther down the stem. The leaves come in a variety of sizes and in spring, when leaves are smaller, they can also be reddish-green and quite shiny.

Young poison ivy with shiny leaves

Single leaves can grow to nearly the size of your palm, depending on where you live and how much your poison ivy likes its habitat. Colors vary from a lighter Kelly green to deep dark green to red-tinged. Leaves can be smooth-edged or have a jagged edge, but are rarely serrated.

Climbing poison ivy - note the placement of the leaves and the uneven, but not serrated edges

The two main varieties of poison ivy are climbing and non-climbing. Climbing poison ivy can be identified by its tendency to climb straight up a tree, building, or telephone pole, instead of winding around like other vines. Mature vines get woody and bark-like and can sometimes be covered with fine “hairs.” Some vines can cover and kill entire trees, or give the illusion of being a part of the tree in the form of branches and leaves.

Climbing poison ivy - note the woody, climbing stalks

Non-climbing poison ivy is harder to spot as it mixes in with other woodland plants and is good at hiding.

Can you find the poison ivy hiding in this picture? Scroll all the way down for the answer

The best way to avoid poison ivy is to stay on the beaten path when traveling through wooded areas and to avoid brushing up against any plants. If you do travel through wooded areas, always wear long pants and boots – when you get home, take off your pants and turn them inside out and immediately throw them in the wash or hamper. Turning clothing that may have come in contact with poison ivy inside out will help prevent transfer of the toxic oils that create the poison ivy rash. If weed-eating in wooded areas, change immediately after you are finished and turn all of your clothes inside out to be washed and take a cool shower with plenty of soap. Poison ivy toxin is an oil that can’t be wiped off – it will just spread. It needs to be washed off with soap or rubbing alcohol and rinsed thoroughly with cool water. Avoid warm or hot water as it will open the pores and help spread the oil.

If you do get a poison ivy rash, wash thoroughly and try to avoid scratching. Keeping the rash cool will help keep it dry. Calamine lotion is a common remedy for poison ivy, but if you find poison ivy in your yard or on a property you frequent regularly, look for jewelweed, a large bushy plant with distinctive yellow-orange flowers.

Jewelweed has orange flowers and the stems and leaves feel "juicy"

The crushed leaves and stems of this plant are an excellent remedy for poison ivy rash and the two plants often share habitat, although jewelweed is much rarer than poison ivy. For immediate relief in the field, bruise the leaves and crush some stems of jewelweed to release the juice and rub on the rash. For home use, crush into a paste in a mortar and apply as a poultice to the rash and secure with a breathable bandage such as gauze.

And now – have you figured out which one is the poison ivy in the photo above?

Tada! If the giant yellow arrow didn’t point it out for you, the poison ivy is the plant right in the middle.

So, think you’re ready to identify and avoid poison ivy in the field? I hope so! And remember – the best way to avoid poison ivy is to stay on the beaten path and be vigilant when working in the yard or in wooded areas. “Leaves of three – let it be!” Even if you’re not sure if it’s poison ivy. Stay safe.

[Author’s note: it has come to my attention from comments and other feedback that I have forgotten some important information to have about poison ivy, so here are some additional tips and suggestions.]

More tips for avoiding poison ivy and staying safe:

  • Animals can carry poison ivy on their fur, so be wary of petting your dog or cat if they have been running through the woods without you. Pets are not allergic, so they have no problem rolling around in patches of poison ivy, but you may regret it if you pet them afterwards. Keep your pets leashed in the woods or give them baths when you get home from a trip through the woods.
  • Poison ivy roots also contain the rash-inducing toxin. Ashley got into some one time during an archaeological dig and had to go to the emergency room! So be careful when digging in the woods or in areas of brush.
  • Poison ivy can also be carried by shoes and shoelaces, so it is best to avoid poison ivy altogether and/or wear long pants that cover your shoelaces when hiking.
  • Never burn poison ivy. The toxin can vaporize and a whiff of smoke from poison ivy can be very dangerous.

Readers – how do you deal with poison ivy? Have any of you had any bad (or good?) experiences with it?

7 Responses to “Avoiding Poison Ivy”
  1. Super pictorial overview that everyone needs to avail themselves of! Nice job!

  2. lisaandjohn1 says:

    Thanks, really great. I can also say (first hand) that dogs can be carriers. When they romp, then come and cuddle, we can get the itchies!

  3. Sara says:

    Every field season I was plagued with poison ivy while digging in the trenches. When I was in field school I ended up with it in my eye. Not fun! Although the steriods made for super fast excavating!

  4. Denell Schreiber says:

    What is growing out of the ground under the picture of the wild raspberry leaves?

    • sewassbe says:

      Hi Denell – If you’re referring to the very first picture, that is Virginia Creeper growing under the raspberries.

  5. steve66a says:

    I have noted that poison ivy invariably has red tinged roots (I pull up a lot on my property).
    I have also found that there are variants in which the leaves are not strictly arranged in groups of three, and this is particularly so in certain areas of the country. I wish others would document photos of this.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Stay on the beaten path. Avoid walking through heavy brush and/or tall grass. If walking through the woods, stick to open areas and avoid plants (this is also helpful in avoiding poison ivy). […]

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