Recognize Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy & impostors, real poison ivy vs. look-a-likes

I think I’ve found poison ivy in every state I’ve visited, in the USA, Canada and Mexico. The mere mention of “poison ivy” strikes terror into the hearts of many, especially since so few actually recognize it. I’ve heard of a number of cases of would be woodsmen running out of toilet paper and using leaves to wipe, only to discover that they’ve been had… BY POISON IVY!

The area where I grew up had one of the highest concentrations of poison ivy in the world. There were stretches, on the edges of the woods, which were probably 85% poison ivy. It grew everywhere, and, from the time we moved there, when I was age 6, until I left for college, I always had at least a touch of poison ivy, somewhere on my person. This was a good environment for learning to recognize the stuff. To this day I can spot poison ivy without having to pause along the way. It just seems to stand out. However, many people who live and work in the outdoors struggle to recognize it.

Many people struggle to recognize poison ivy.

poison ivy growing in an azaelia, poison ivy plant

    This is the real deal. This is poison ivy, growing among some azaleas.

Some pointers for recognizing poison ivy:

  • Poison ivy has three leaves, connected to the end of a single stem. We’ve probably all heard the old jingle, “Three leaves, let it be.” Well, it’s true. Just remember, however, that there are harmless plants also sporting the same number of leaves. This is just a start.
  • Poison Ivy and Poison Oak, though not identical, are so close you don’t need to worry which is which. I suspect that poison oak is the “poison ivy” I’ve seen with more lobes or serrations on its leaves. Yet when I see it, my NJ honed instincts still tell me not to touch!”
  • Poison ivy can grow as a small plant, a trailing vine or even a good sized bush. I’ve seen poison ivy plants which topped 6′ in height. Yet in our current location the most common form is a diminutive little plant mixed in with high grasses, along the road.
poison ivy in tall grass, danger in tall grass
Poison ivy, when growing in sunny, grassy locations, is usually a small, unobtrusive plant.
  • Poison ivy leaves may be shiny, especially in the Spring, but they don’t have to be. Also, they often take on a reddish tint in the fall, but not always.
  • When growing as a vine, poison ivy has many aerial roots (hairy looking roots coming off the vine and either hanging in the air or reaching for the bark of a tree). If you encounter a vine with this kind of root and leaves in clusters of three… better to avoid touching it.
Poison ivy aerial roots, aerial roots
This is a dead poison ivy vine, but you can still see the aerial roots. By the way, this might still give you poison ivy.
  • Poison ivy and poison oak produce white flowers in spring and white berries in the fall. I don’t know many other plants which have white berries.

Great video on how to avoid getting poison ivy after contact; this really works!

Recognize some poison ivy impostors.

It’ll save you a lot of anxiety to be able to eliminate some suspects. The other day I walked along the road, in front of our home, and photographed some impostors.

Virginia Creeper, a.k.a. Boston Ivy

Virginia Creeper, a.k.a. Boston Ivy
Virginia Creeper fits the description of poison ivy, except it has 5 leaves per cluster.

In the winter, when there are no leaves, it’s impossible to tell Virginia Creeper from Poison Ivy. For the vast majority of people, Virginia Creeper causes no skin reaction whatsoever. Virginia Creeper is always a vine, and will have aerial roots. While looking for poison ivy, in the woods across the street, I found it amusing that almost all the plants which sorta triggered my “poison ivy instincts” were Virginia Creeper. Unlike my childhood home, there was very little poison ivy in the woods.


is a tree that produces huge amounts of seed, all of which seem to come up…all over the place. We have a number of Boxelder trees on our place and the seedlings sprout thickly in the lawn and gardens. They are carried by the wind. Boxelder comes the closest to fooling me. At times it truly looks like poison ivy… at first and maybe even second glance.

Green Ash, Green Ash looks like poison ivy,

It’s hard to know how many people have been fooled by Boxelder. Yet, it’s quite harmless. The key to telling them apart is to look at the stem. The Boxelder has a bright green stem, even up to when it has a diameter as large as a broomstick. Poison ivy has either a brown stem, or in the case of very young sprouts, a washed out, faded green stem.

Boxelder and poison ivy twigs compared

And, of course, Boxelder gets a lot larger than poison ivy.

Mature Green Ash Tree


Wild Bean

There are a number of species of wild bean in North and Central America. The one we have here is probably Strophostyles helvula, a.k.a Missouri Fuzzy Bean. I’ve been fascinated with this little wild bean, noting that it tends to grow along the side of the road, right where it gets the hottest. It occurred to me that a person unsure of themselves might mistake this one for poison ivy, after all, “Three leaves, let it be,” right? Well, not always.

Missouri fuzzy bean, wild bean
Wild Bean

How can one tell this one from poison ivy? First of all, upon close examination, one will notice that the leaves are covered in very (I mean very) small fuzz. Secondly, the wild bean will begin twining much more readily than will poison ivy. The wild bean actually has a bean type growing habit, which is different than that of poison ivy. It produces twiners very very soon after sprouting. Also, many times one can find leguminous type flowers on the wild bean. They look like bean flowers.

twining wild bean, wild bean plant
The wild bean puts out twiners, just like a regular garden bean, only more delicate.


Bush Beans vs. Pole, which is best for you?

A final suggestion:

There are many subtleties in plant recognition, whether in recognizing poison ivy or some other plant. No one starts out an expert. The best way to become good at recognizing poison ivy, or any other plant, for that matter, is to practice. Make a practice of trying to recognize the plants you encounter. Take note of some you don’t, and then, at your own pace, investigate. There are some great books and on-line guides. Also,  forums on the Internet can be helpful. Just be aware that there are more who claim to know, than actually do. When using a forum, it’s a good idea to pay attention, over time, to who are the recognized experts. Pay extra attention to what those people say.



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