How to Spot Poison Ivy

It’s not as simple as “leaves of three.”

Poison ivy is one of the most common poisonous plants in the Greater Morgantown area. We normally think of poison ivy as “leaves of three,” or having a “hairy” vine creeping along the ground or up the side of a tree, but poison ivy can also shape into a free-standing shrub or a small bush.
With the weather warming up, it’s a great time to start exploring the natures of Greater Morgantown by taking in the scenic overlooks, biking or hiking the wooded trails, rock climb the mountainous backdrops, listen to the serene streams, kayak the rivers or lakes, or visit the many campgrounds, dog parks, and playgrounds. Whatever you decide to do, you should know how to spot (and treat!) poison ivy just in case you come into contact with the plant.

Watch Out!

poison ivy plant growing on trees

Poison Ivy growing up the side of a tree

Approximately 80% of people develop contact dermatitis upon exposure to poison ivy. Contact with the oil, urushiol, is a widely reported ailments of poison ivy in the United States. Not only are the leaves of poison ivy poisonous, but the vines, stems, and branches contain urushiol that can also cause contact dermatitis.

A negative reaction to poison ivy can occur year-round, unlike the common misconception that it can only occur during the spring and summer months. If you’re like most people in West Virginia, you will be outside when the weather is nice either hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, or doing just about anything that requires you to take part in the beautiful views and activities of the state. Poison ivy flourishes in the deep woods and on very dry and exposed hillsides or road banks — right where you will most likely be.

Natural Camouflage

Notice the clusters of three leaflets

Notice the clusters of three leaflets

You may be familiar with the general rule of identifying poison ivy — whether from a shrub or off of a vine, poison ivy grows in “leaves of three.” Each leaf is a compound leaf made up of three leaflets that come off of a stem. The cluster of the three leaflets will be alternate on the stem, meaning that one leaf will not come out directly across from another leaf. There are no thorns on a poison ivy vine or stem, but the stem may contain hairs and be quite fuzzy.

red poison ivy leaves

A very young poison ivy plant taken in Spring

Young poison ivy can have reddish leaves, particularly in the fall. In the winter, you may be able to spot white berries growing from the plant.

Poison Ivy Look-Alikes

poison ivy, trouty lily, Virginia Creeper, Elm Tree plants

Poison Ivy look-alikes

“It’s a tricky plant to identify. It varies in size, shape, and color, and looks different depending on the season and location. It can carpet the ground, form bushes, and climb trees,” said Zach Fowler, Director of the WVU Earl L. Core Arboretum.

Look-alikes include:

Box Elder plant

Box Elder

Box Elder – leaves are opposite rather than alternate and the stems of the plants are much more green than the woody stem of poison ivy.

Virginia Creeper plant

Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper – with five leaves as opposed to three, the leaflets are “toothy.” Poison ivy almost never has serrated edges along all of the leaves.

Virgin's Bower plant

Virgin’s Bower

Virgin’s Bower – a daintier vine than poison ivy with opposite, herbaceous leaves. The shape of the leaves is a tale-tell sign that this plant isn’t poison ivy.

One way to identify poison ivy is through sheer experience – to see it in its many forms, as well as its look-alikes. Fowler suggests taking a self-guided tour of the Arboretum to learn more about and to identify the many forms of poison ivy.  

Best Treatments for Poison Ivy

Jewelweed plant, leaves, orange flowers

Jewelweed may provide relief to a poison ivy rash

Have you already gotten caught in a patch of poison ivy? The best way to prevent that rash from spreading is by washing anything that may have been in contact with the poison ivy oil, urushiol. This includes your body, your clothes, and your pets. Within 30 minutes after exposure, use soap and water to gently wash off the urushiol. Once the original source of the urushiol is removed, the rash can no longer spread.

Take a warm, soothing bath with Epsom salt to treat your rash. Natural remedies like the cool juice of the plant, jewelweed, can offer relief.

Try to avoid scratching or popping the poison ivy blisters. Though doing either cannot re-spread the urushiol, the liquid that fills poison ivy blisters is actually made by your body as an immune system response.

Think you’re a poison ivy pro? Take the quiz to test you poison ivy knowledge to find out!



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