Misadventures in Poison Ivy

Fair warning, this blog might make you itchy..

Everyone and their grandmother knows the age old adage “leaves of three let it be,” but does everyone know exactly which leaves of three? Working in the outdoor field for ten years, I have come across my fair share of poison ivy patches, vines, bushes, and carefully hidden leaves of three, all resulting in a fair share of itchy, oozing, blistering rashes (can you imagine attending Firefly Festival in 95 degree weather with poison ivy rashes up both arms? Let me tell you, it is not fun). Because of that, I now have a sixth sense specifically reserved for poison ivy identification. I can ID the stuff quicker than you can say “leaves of three.” Hopefully some of my personal experiences and pictures will help you to also identify and steer clear of the shiny poisonous plant, and if you are one of the lucky ones who is somehow “immune,” then major props to you.

I grew up running around in the woods behind my house. Building forts out of huge grape vines, stirring up onion grass soup, and of course bumping into some poison ivy along the way. After a few bad rashes I quickly learned what it looked like: the usual leaves of three, and sometimes very shiny, sometimes red, sometimes light green, sometimes dark green, sometimes growing up a tree, or sometimes growing like a bush (why so many variations???). I somehow avoided all of that for years.. until I was a freshman in high school.

My 9th grade biology unit was focusing on stream ecosystems and we took a field trip to Pickering Creek in Phoenixville, PA to do a full stream study. This day is extremely memorable not only because it involves poison ivy, but I was also dealing with a spider bite that made my eye swell and it looked like I had been punched in the face. Double whammy. One of the sections of the stream report we had to write involved the plants on the bank of the creek. What kinds of plants were they? How dense were they? Were they shading the creek in any way? We also had to cut a small sample and bring them back to the classroom with us. Unfortunately, I was not the person in my group responsible for gathering the sample. Can you guess where this is going? Yes indeed, my team member chose good ol’ poison ivy as the sample. Once back in the classroom it was a bit of mayhem once the realization hit, and I lucked out in that I only got a rash on my wrist. The person who picked it was not so lucky. She did not come to school for a few days and I heard through the grape vine (or shall I say, poison ivy vine ;)) that she had it all over her face.

So, here is my first lesson in poison ivy identification: don’t touch a plant if you aren’t 100% sure what it is! This goes for any plant. Stinging nettle hurts like a you know what the first time you accidentally rub up against it. And then you learn real quick not to go near it again. Unfortunately, poison ivy isn’t as fast to act as stinging nettle, so if you do accidentally touch it you won’t find out until a day or two later when the itchy rash appears. Now, some quick info on that itchy rash…

All parts of the Poison Ivy plant contain an oil called urushiol. When it comes into contact with skin, urushiol is what gives people an itchy blistering rash. Bad news is the oil can remain on clothing, shoes, garden tools, and even your own dogs fur until it is washed off with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. It can literally stay on surfaces for YEARS and still cause a problem when touched. Urushiol totally beats Covid19 in its surface sticking capabilities. If you think you may have rubbed up against or walked through poison ivy, it is best to thoroughly wash your clothing and shoes as soon as you can. If your skin comes into contact with the oil and you do not act quickly or wash it off properly you will most likely contract the dreaded rash. Contrary to popular belief, if you do get a rash, it cannot be spread by itching, and it is not contagious to other people. It CAN spread if you still have remnants of oil on your hands or fingers and touch other places on your skin. SO, the best way to prevent spreading it is by doing something we’ve all gotten really good at recently; WASH YOUR HANDS.

Now, for the identification. Because I know you didn’t come here to read about all of the times I’ve had a poison ivy rash. Take a look at the photos above. They all are poison ivy. When the plant first starts to appear during warm spring days, the leaves will be reddish in color and very shiny (like photo #1 above). As it continues to grow and spread, it loses its redness and starts to turn green (photos 2-4). In the summer months it can either be the light green shade of photo 3 or a darker green. And in the fall it can be shades of red, yellow, and orange! Notice how the leaves look notched in photos 1-3? Unfortunately that is not always the case. Some poison ivy leaves are very smooth around the edges like the plant in photo 4. And if color changes and leaf shape variations aren’t enough, the plant can also climb (photo 5)! Poison Ivy loves to utilize trees to spread its branches and grow upwards towards the sun. Poison ivy vines can grow thicker than your arm and they are typically reddish in color and very hairy. Another fun saying to remember is “hairy vine? No friend of mine!” You have to be super careful if you are near a tree that has a poison ivy vine growing on it because a lot of times, what resembles young branches of the tree sticking out, are actually poison ivy branches! The plant is a true trickster.

Now, look at the set of photos above. All of these plants may look like poison ivy, but they are not! Photo 1 is a type of bramble, possibly blackberry. If you look closely, the stem has small thorns. Poison Ivy does not have any thorns. Photo 2 is a young Jack in the Pulpit plant. Notice how all three leaves are around the same size and they are almost as wide as they are long. Poison ivy leaves are usually much longer than they are wide and the center leaf is typically the largest of the three. Photo 3 is a plant that often gets mixed up with poison ivy even though it has 5 leaves instead of 3! This is Virginia creeper. It can also grow on a vine and it looks very shiny when it first appears in the spring. Some people are allergic to this plant as well so it is best to avoid it. Photo 4 is a tricky one. It definitely has 3 leaves that are longer than they are wide, and the stem looks menacingly red.. This is a very young Ashleaf Maple, or Boxelder. People often get this plant confused with poison ivy. Remember, if you aren’t 100% sure what it is, don’t touch it! Photo number 5 looks to be a plant growing with that reddish green hue but it definitely has more than 3 leaves. This is Jewelweed! A lovely marsh plant that can also be used as anti-itch medicine! The stem of the plant has a gel-like substance similar to aloe vera that when rubbed on skin it can help soothe the itch and burn of poison ivy and stinging nettle. Neat right?

Are we all poison ivy experts yet? Who thinks they’re ready to go camping on an island in the middle of a river that is covered in the stuff? This has actually happened three times too many and the aftermath of each trip was not pleasant. I am hopeful that you can now go forth and identify a poison ivy plant (it is all over the place at Ashland Nature Center, all of these photos were taken there three days ago!) or at least avoid the plants that you are unsure of. And remember, always wash your hands!

Oh, and P.S. never EVER burn the stuff. I have heard more horror stories on those experiences than I have ever wished to..

3 thoughts on “Misadventures in Poison Ivy”

  1. Cammie Cairns

    Nicely done! Question: How to wash up when out hiking? Is washing hands with stream water and a sand rub better than nothing?

  2. Annalie Mergenthaler

    Yes! If you are on a hike and need to wash up immediately, stream water will do if you have nothing else. I also highly recommend IvyX Post-contact Cleanser Towelettes. They come in little packs like moist towelettes and contain a cleansing solution that gets the urushiol oil off of your skin! They can be found on amazon but also at places like walmart and REI. I always carry a pack or two with me when I am hiking!

  3. Good information for those that get poison ivy. I’m so far one that does not get it.

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