Think you might have spotted poison ivy? In this illustrated guide, we’ll give you the breakdown of key features to look for as well as how to spot poison oak and poison sumac!
How to Identify Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy, toxicodendron radicans, is a poisonous plant native to North America and Asia that can be found growing as a shrub, vine, or sprouting among other wild brush.
Poison ivy produces oil called urushiol that if touched and made contact can cause an allergic reaction that gives a nasty blistering rash, or dermatitis.
Identifying poison ivy can be tricky, especially because it kinda looks like a lot of other generic leafy plants you find in the woods. But fear not! There are several distinct features of poison ivy (its other poisonous cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, are easy to identify, too) to stop you from getting that wretched and awful rash that it is known for.
Key Features to Recognize Poison Ivy
Poison ivy looks like many other plants, and can also differ in the way it looks; that said, the common characteristics are easy to see if you know what to look for. Here are some common ways you can identify it:
- “Leaves of three, let it be,” as the old saying goes. Poison ivy will always only have three leaflets.
- The middle leaflet will have a slightly longer stem.
- The edges of the leaves can be smooth or jagged and have a pointy tip.
- It may (but not always) produces small five-petal flowers and/or light-colored berries.
- It will have a reddish stem.
- May have aerial roots.
- Leaves will grow on alternating sides.
- The surface of leaves can look glossy or dull.
How many leaves does poison ivy have?
If it’s got three leaves, it’s poison ivy. That’s why we have that old saying, “leaves of three, let it be.” Poison ivy has three leaves – one right in the center, and one on each side. Poison oak has a similar structure, although the shape of the leaves is different; poison oak leaves are slightly more round than the pointier leaves of poison ivy.
Poison Ivy Look-a-likes
Poison ivy can be confused with many different plants, especially because there are lots of plants that only have three leaves. Here’s a breakdown of a few plants to look out for:
Bramble plants, aka wild blackberry, brambleberries, and raspberries also only have three leaves, but they always have prickly stems which poison ivy never has.
Clematis is another green plant that also has three leaves, but its leaves are much more curved than poison ivy leaves.
Boxelder plants look very similar to poison ivy, but the main way to distinguish between the two is by observing that boxelder leaves grow exactly parallel to one another, whereas poison ivy alternates sides.
Hog Peanut also have 3 leaves, but they grow on much smaller stems, their leaf shape is more like a heart than a teardrop, and they are not toothed.
Jewelweed is known for being very abundant around poison ivy, and resembles it greatly. However, it can be seen with orange flowers instead of white, and its stem is a lighter green with no tints of red.
The virginia creeper’s leaflets look very similar to poison ivy, but it grows in groups of five leaflets instead of three.
Where Does Poison Ivy Grow in North America?
Poison ivy can survive just about any temperate climate.
Places you won’t see poison ivy? Deserts, very high elevation, and the arctic.
Poison ivy is actually found in every US state except for Hawaii, Alaska, and California. So, no matter where you’re hiking or backpacking, you usually need to be on the lookout for poison ivy leaves.
Types of Poison Ivy
There are two types of poison ivy: eastern and western. Eastern poison ivy is known for being a climbing vine or tall shrub, whereas Western poison ivy only grows on the ground. Both plants can cause an allergic reaction.
Identifying Poison Ivy in Every Season
Poison ivy is abundant in the spring and summer, but it can also appear in the fall and winter, so always be on the lookout! As you can see in the graphic above, poison ivy looks different in different seasons. While a spring/summer encounter with poison ivy is the most likely, it pays to know what it looks like in every season. Being able to spot plants like this is an essential (and very fun) backpacking skill.
In early spring, poison ivy can appear with light green stems with red or green leaves. It also can have green or white berries and small greenish or white flowers.
During the summer, poison ivy will get its peak deep green leaf color, and if the plant does have berries (it won’t always), they will be a cream color, as well as a potential for five petal flowers.
In the fall, poison ivy leaves can be anywhere from green, yellow, or bright orange and red.
In the winter months, poison ivy is a lot more scarce but can still appear, and will typically be a bright red or orange.
Is Everyone Allergic to Poison Ivy?
Not everyone will get an allergic reaction from the plant, but three in four will. It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if you are known for being an outdoors person, and have never gotten it- you may not be allergic!
Other Poisonous Plants
Ivy, oak, or sumac?
Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are all poisonous varieties of the Toxicodendron plant family. But what do Oak and Sumac look like and where does it grow?
Poison Ivy vs. Poison Oak
One main way to decipher between the ivy leaf and the oak leaf is that, unlike poison ivy, oak leaves edges are more rounded, making them actually resemble oak tree leaves, hence its name. Other than that though, poison ivy leaves and poison oak leaves are very similar and even produce similar-looking berries and flowers.
Where Does Poison Oak Grow?
Poison oak grows primarily in the west and southeast of the United States and can rarely be found in the midwest.
Poison Ivy vs. Poison Sumac
Poison sumac leaves grow in groups of 7-13 leaflets, also have pointed tips, and also have the famous oily substance on it’s surface that causes an allergic reaction. Fragrant sumac is another variety of poison sumac.
Where does poison sumac Grow?
Poison sumac is the most rare between the three, and can be found in much for the eastern United States, and can grow in wetlands and swamps unlike poison ivy.
No matter where you’re going on a backpacking trip, poison ivy and its cousins can find you!
Can Poison Ivy Spread?
Poison ivy cannot spread from one person to another, unless there is still urushiol oil on your skin. After the oil has been cleaned off your skin, one person’s rash cannot infect another person.
Precautions to Take
If you are going deep in the woods for backpacking, fishing, or any backcountry activity- you may be at risk for repeated exposure. That’s why some sort of treatment method should always be part of your backpacking gear checklist. Here are a few things you can do to stop it in it’s tracks:
- wear long pants
- wear long sleeves to avoid contact
- rinse off with water every time you are brushing against wild plants
- use disposable gloves to take off clothes afterward to prevent any potential urushiol oil from transferring.
I Just Touched Poison Ivy – What Do I Do?
If you just came in contact with poison ivy, what you will want to do is immediately wash the skin that came into contact with dishwashing liquid. Taking a shower would be even better to eliminate any chance. Changing your clothes and separating them from other dirty laundry is also a great idea. Monitor the skin, and if a rash appears, don’t fret and read on!
How to Treat a Poison Ivy Rash
After your skin has come in contact with the plant, rinsing your skin immediately (within 5-15 minutes) with rubbing alcohol, baking soda or dish soap might be enough to stop the reaction, but may not be enough. If you do develop a rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac, you will want to get calamine lotion and/or hydrocortisone cream.
The rash will develop to its full extent probably within 48 hours, creating red bumps and blisters that will fill with a clear liquid.
The calamine lotion will help dry out the rash, as well as help relieve some of the itches. The hydrocortisone cream will help relieve inflammation and itch. I recommend using both but depending on the severity of the rash, if you apply calamine lotion, that may be enough. Hydrocortisone is the best way to treat poison ivy on the trail, too.
Other treatments to help soothe the skin would be running it under cool water, using cool compresses, soaking it in salt water, and even apple cider vinegar to dry it out!
If you develop other allergic reactions, like an itchy throat or any other more serious symptoms, emergency care may be needed.
Most people don’t have severe reactions, but if you think you may have inhaled the poison plant or gotten the oil in your mouth for some reason, it is best to go to the emergency room to take the best proper precautions!
I hope this article was helpful in helping you identify, prevent, and treat poison ivy!
Let me know in the comments any other helpful remedies you’ve found to treat the poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash!