What does poison ivy look like? A simple guide to identifying poison ivy in the wild. Complete with 14 images and other confusing look-a-likes.
Updated: October 1st, 2020
* might-have (or seasonal indicator)
|1. 3 Leaves||Leaves glossy at the top|
|2. Alternating side shoots||Cream-colored berries|
|3. Pointy tips and jagged edges||5-petal greenish flowers|
|4. Middle leaf on a longer stem||Aerial roots|
|5. Reddish stem|
|6. No thorns|
Compared to poison oak or sumac, poison ivy is the most common and widespread of the three popular toxic plants. Poison ivy can grow in forests, near water, and also in urban environments. It’s important to learn its telltale signs so you don’t accidentally come into contact with it. However, this may take some practice as poison ivy can be one tricky little transforming bugger.
Not only do its leaves change colors depending on the season, but the plant itself can grow in many forms like small shrubs, carpet-like ground coverings, or even climbing vines. In this post, we’re discussing specific features you can look for on this plant to effectively identify and steer clear of it.
Poison Ivy can be difficult to identify, however, there are a few details you can look for that will help you distinguish it from other plants. The following pictures of poison ivy will help identify each part of the plant and spot it easily next time you're out on a hike.
Leaves: Always in Three, Jagged Edges, Pointy Tips, Middle Leaf on a Longer Stem
In order to remember how many leaves poison ivy has, there is a popular saying that goes “Leaves of three? Let it be.” This chant was created because poison ivy always comes in a set of three oval leaflets.
The leaves will have jagged edges, pointy tips, and can grow to a size of 2-5 inches long. The two side leaves branch directly off from the stem, while the middle leaf is larger with a protruding stem. The two side leaves can also resemble a mitten, having one defined, segregated point similar to the ‘thumb’ in a mitten. The veins in poison ivy are very prominent in all three leaves.
In early spring and summer, the leaves will appear red and have a glossy look. As the plant ages throughout the seasons, the leaves will change color and texture losing their initial glossy appearance. Where the leaves will appear red in spring, they turn green in summer and change to orange or yellow in the fall.
A poison ivy plant is at its highest poison concentration in early spring and summer. So can you get poison ivy in the winter? Sadly, yes. Even when winter comes around and the leaves die off, a poison ivy vine remains alive and poisonous.
Stems: Alternating Side Shoots, Reddish, No ThOrns
Knowing what features to look for on the stems of poison ivy can be even more helpful than recognizing the details of its leaves. This is because where poison ivy’s leaves change depending on the season, the stems remain consistent.
The first notable characteristic of a poison ivy stem is that it has a reddish tint. Also, the stems holding the leaves will alternate on each side growing left then right, rather than branching off directly across from each other. The middle stem holding the largest leaf will also always be longer and more pronounced. Another detail to keep in mind is that poison ivy stems will never have thorns, but they will have small hair-like roots that grow off of the vines, as these roots help the plant to “climb.”
As for stem height, ground plants can grow up to 2 ft, bushes and shrubs 3 ft, and vines can reach up to 100 ft.
Wikimedia Commons by Kbh3rd
Flowers: From May to July, 5 Greenish Petals, Orange-colored Pistil
From May to July, poison ivy plants bloom with small, poisonous greenish-yellow flowers. The flowers have five petals, orange-colored centers, and they bloom in small clusters branching off from thin stalks. The flower itself is almost perfectly round, and each flower can get as large as a ½ inch in diameter.
Berries: Starting in August, Cream-COlored or Gray
Beginning in August and continuing into winter, white, gray or cream-colored berries can bloom from poison ivy plants. To humans, these berries are just as poisonous as the rest of the plant. However, they are a non-poisonous meal for birds, deer and other wildlife. These berries are largely why poison ivy is found in a variety of locations, as wildlife will eat the berries and later dispel the seeds which then bloom into new plants.
Roots: Specific to Poison Ivy Vines
Whereas western poison ivy roots grow underground, eastern poison Ivy’s roots are visible above ground; they're known as aerial roots. Aerial roots help poison ivy vines cling to and climb structures like walls, fences, and trees. In older plants, you’ll often see tiny, thin roots that look “hairy” branching off from vines and stems.
1. Virginia Creeper – This non-toxic plant can look similar to poison ivy, however there are two visible differences. Virginia creepers come in groups of five leaflets instead of three, and its berries are dark purple.
2. Boxelder – Although similar to poison ivy upon first glance, Boxelder's side shoots grow directly opposite from each other, while poison ivy shoots alternate on each side of the stem. Another way to tell the two apart is by looking for either gray or bluish blooms on the plant - those indicate you're dealing with Boxelder, not poison ivy.
3. Raspberry Bush – Raspberry bushes in their early stages can resemble a poison ivy plant. However, if you look closely, you’ll find that raspberry bushes have thorns on their vines where poison ivy bushes do not.
4. Hog Peanut – Like poison ivy, a hog peanut plant has three leaflets. However, its leaflets are untoothed and branch off of a much finer stem.
5. Jewelweed – Also known as a touch-me-not because of its delicate seed pods, this plant is commonly found alongside poison ivy and is often even mistaken for it. Jewelweed, however, has a light green stem, and in the spring, yellow or orange trumpet-shaped flowers. Fun fact: the ‘juice’ that lives within a jewelweeds stem is sometimes used as a natural remedy for treating poison ivy rashes and itching.
Poison ivy can grow in just about any climate other than at high elevations of over 4,000 feet, or in arid deserts. It requires only temperate weather and a few spouts of sun to survive, and has been found in parts of China, Russia and North America. The largest population of poison ivy is located in the U.S., with the plant living in every state except for Alaska, Hawaii and California. The greatest quantity spans sections of the Midwest and Eastern states, especially favoring moist areas along river and lakefronts, ocean beaches and the great lakes region.
*Map only approximate. Reality may differ slightly.
Poison Ivy can grow as a vine, shrub or single plant. It’s important to know that all three are poisonous, all year around.
Vine: The most abundant type of poison ivy, this form thrives in the eastern half of the U.S.. Fittingly, it is often referred to as ‘eastern poison ivy.’ A poison ivy vine can reach up to a hundred feet tall thanks to its above ground, aerial roots that help it scale buildings, chain-link fences and trees or telephone poles. A common characteristic found on these vines is that they contain small, hair-like roots branching out in all directions. These vines and roots are just as poisonous as the leaves, and should be avoided like the rest of the plant.
Shrub: Also referred to as ‘western poison ivy’, these low-growing shrubs or bushes thrive in the western plains of the U.S. and in many parts of Canada. A poison ivy shrub can reach up to four feet tall and typically sprouts from an unbranched, wooded stem. A shrub of poison ivy does not climb or have exposed roots like that of its vine cousin, eastern poison ivy. Shrubs of poison ivy grow best on the edges of woods, in ditches, or across open spaces with moderate sunlight.
Single Plant: Poison ivy plants spread by birds and other animals digesting the berries and expelling the seeds. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to find a single plant of poison ivy growing alongside houses, cement or wooded paths, or sprouting up out of gardens. A single plant of poison ivy can be just as toxic as a shrub or vine, and if found on your property, should be removed with care before it spreads.
The first step in preventing contact with poison ivy is to practice recognizing it from the get-go so you’ll avoid it. Luckily, there are plenty of fun little mantra’s nowadays you can memorize to help with this. A few of the most common are:
Each one of these little mantra’s contains classifying characteristics of poison ivy, and knowing to look for these characteristics is a helpful precautionary measure. A second measure you can take is to wear long sleeves, pants, and closed toed shoes anytime you’ll be walking through foliage or well-vegetated areas.
However, properly covering up doesn’t guarantee your totally in the clear from poison ivy’s effects. The venomous part of poison ivy is actually the urushiol oil it produces. This oil can cling to surfaces such as clothing, gloves, a pet’s fur or even gear like backpacks and hiking boots. Thus, you don't need to come into direct contact with the plant to get hurt.
Once the oil gets on an item, the item must be thoroughly washed or the oil can remain a threat for up to five years.
Another important thing to note is that burning a poison ivy plant may be tempting, but it is NEVER a good idea. If you do this, the toxins will become airborne and you can inhale the oil’s chemical’s, creating a case of poison ivy rash internally on your lungs.
If you do come into contact with this unfriendly plant, here are a few steps you can take early on and treatment options you can follow to help make the healing process faster and a bit more bearable.
1. Wash your skin immediately and repeatedly with rubbing alcohol or dish soap followed by cold water. If you do this quickly enough—like within the first 10-20 minutes—you can still get the poisonous oils off your skin and avoid the allergic reaction altogether.
2. Put on gloves you won’t mind throwing away (i.e. a cheap rubber pair).
3. Wash everything else you think might have also touched the poison ivy.
If you end up developing a reaction to poison ivy, you’ll experience inflammation, reddening of the skin, an itchy rash and small blisters filled with clear liquid 24-48 hours after contact. Keep in mind that although you’ll itch like the dickens, scratching away at the impacted areas can make the reaction worse because bacteria could get in the wounds and cause infection.
Applying Calamine lotion, Cortisone, Benadryl and even Apple Cider Vinegar to the infected areas are all great for drying out your skin and helping relieve itch. Also, swimming in a chlorine pool, soaking in a salt bath or even washing with tomato juice can be effective methods for “drying out.”
If out on the trail, extracting the juice from a jewelweed stem and applying it onto the affected areas may be your best line of defense in helping soothe your skin. Be sure to test a small amount of jewelweed first to make sure you’re not allergic.
If you catch a bad case of poison ivy, keep in mind that the most severe symptoms occur within the first 48 hours after the rash has developed. The healing time can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on severity. Once you’ve caught poison ivy, your sensitivity and reaction can increase each time you’re exposed. In especially severe cases or if you show signs of infection (like fever or yellow fluid seeping from scabs or blisters), you should talk with a doctor immediately about taking a steroid like Prednisone, which will reduce inflammation and temporarily mask painful symptoms.
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast who specializes in articles, blog posts, gear reviews, and site content about living the Good Life spent exploring The Great Outdoors. Her favorite days are ones in nature, and her favorite views are any with mountains.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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