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How to Identify Poison Ivy: 3 Pro Tips!

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

I'm sure you've heard the classic "Leaves of 3... Let it be..." but what else??

Basically any further information would be better... why have we traditionally stopped at '3 leaves'?

Here you'll find those extra steps you need to take to properly identify Poison Ivy in the wild -not to mention few helpful videos, and a photo gallery to browse! With the Spring season swiftly approaching, now is a great time to prepare yourself before you dare show those bare legs or ankles in the woods!

Poison Ivy, scientifically known as Toxicodendron radicans is common throughout the United States and is native to both North America and Asia.

They can appear as small plants, shrubs, ground cover, climbing vines, and even trees (see video here) not to mention there's Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and even a Western Poison Ivy... and guess what... they're all slightly different so... #nope #goodnight #toomuch

I know, I know, it's over whelming! Trust me, just looking out for a few key characteristics can really help gain a better understanding of 'Toxicodendron' - this scary cluster of a genus. So for now let's focus on what we find everywhere in the Eastern region of the US: 'Poison Ivy.'

So What makes Poison Ivy toxic?

Urushiol is a liquid compound found in the plant's sap that can cause urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.

Believe it or not, "Poison Ivy" isn't actually a true ivy at all. In fact, Toxicodenron radicans is in the same family as cashews, pistachios, and mangoes (Anacardiaceae). Some plants in this family, including "Fragrant Sumac" *featured in this video about Lion's Mane mushrooms here* can look very similar to Poison Ivy. Although most of these relatives aren't considered toxic, an allergenic compound closely related to urushiol has been found in many.

So let's dive in to some characteristics of this sneaky, itchy, monster plant!

Characteristics of Poison Ivy:

  • Reddish center where the 3 leaves *technically these are leaflets* come together.

  • The middle leaflet sports a stem that gets longer and further from the 2 base leaflets as it ages

  • The leaflets do change color - As the seasons change they can be green, yellow, red, or a mixture! 😵‍💫

  • This plant is a vine and can grow along the ground or vertically up trees, bushes, fences etc.

  • If you can spot the vines you'll notice they seem "hairy" as they are covered in lots of aerial roots.

In the video below you can see some real life examples of the characteristics listed above:

So taking those characteristics into consideration, here are the 3 tips we find most helpful when trying to "ID PI" in the wild!

3 Tips to Identifying Poison Ivy:

  1. Look for 3 leaflets - reddish center & middle leaflet. w/ longer stem

  2. Edges have sharp jags - not serrated ❌ 🪚

  3. Hairy vines - grow horizontally or vertically

If you're feeling down on yourself about not being able to properly ID these plants yet, don't fret. These plants can be sneaky... Plus I know it can feel like the more you know, the less you know... You know? Overall it just takes time and a little bit of concentration to become more comfortable with identifying these plants. For another look at Poison Ivy in the wild - particularly in the Spring season, watch our video here.

Below you'll find a gallery of photos to help gain an understanding of how Poison Ivy can grow in the wild:



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