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September 6, 2014 / Leslie

Weekend Birding: Leaves of Three, Let it be!

Walking the nature trails is usually pleasant and uneventful. When I stay on the established routes and don’t venture off onto little paths in the woods or prairie (or worse, bushwack my own path), I’m fairly safe from biting bugs, itchy plants and poison ivy. Or so I thought. A few weeks ago I almost walked right into the largest poison ivy vine I’ve ever seen – and it was hanging over a wide, wood-chipped path on a nature trail on a well-traveled route.

Poison Ivy Vine

Poison Ivy

The plant had grown about 20 feet up on the trunk of a tree and the vine was about 2 inches thick. It looked like a branch from the tree and was hanging about four feet over the trail. The trail is visible in the bottom right corner of the photo. (click for larger view)

Poison ivy can be difficult to identify. It looks similar to other plants and it blends into the landscape. The leaves can be shiny or dull, toothed or wavy, and it can look like a shrub, a vine or a clump on the ground. So, how did I know this was poison ivy?

Close-up of Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy

I’m not always positive a plant is poison ivy, but I’m always alert for its presence. If it displays any of the following, I avoid it. The plant above had all the warnings.

Identifying Poison Ivy

  • Poison ivy always has three leaves per leaflet. The leaflets are arranged in an alternate pattern. Two leaves are opposite and close together and the third leaf is on a longer stalk. Always.
  • Usually there is a notch in the leaves. They are not serrated, but can be toothed, wavy or smooth.
  • If the vine is growing up a tree, it will have air roots that will give it a hairy appearance.
  • The presence of tight clumps of white or green berries.

There are perfectly safe plants that have three leaves such as raspberry vines, but the raspberry plant has thorns and poison ivy doesn’t. Box Elder seedlings look a lot like poison ivy, so much so that I’m never sure of those and always avoid them. Boston Ivy is another plant that looks similar.

“Leaves of three, let it be” is good to remember. I have never gotten a rash from poison ivy, but I tend to err on the side of caution.

Brilliant Autumn Color

Poison Ivy Autumn Color

The plant puts on a beautiful display of color in the fall. If it wasn’t so horribly irritating to most people’s skin it would make a lovely addition to the garden.

Only humans are sensitive to poison ivy

Poison Ivy is a native North American plant. Birds and insects are attracted to the berries and flowers as a food source. Woodpeckers and Yellow-rumped Warblers (and probably robins and other fruit-eating species) eat the berries for winter nourishment. They are not sensitive to urushiol, the chemical that causes the itching in our skin.

Can you identify poison ivy?

See if you can identify the poison ivy in these photos: Is this poison ivy? I got 50 out of 55 correct.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Vicki / Sep 6 2014 12:29 pm

    Interesting facts about poison ivy! I got into poison ivy once when I was a kid and it wasn’t fun at all. Thankfully my mom put Calamine Lotion on me and it healed quickly.

    Love the photo of the fall colors. We don’t get much of that where I live, and it makes me miss Ohio!


    • Leslie / Sep 6 2014 12:52 pm

      Fall is a great season. Mild temperatures, beautiful color and migrating birds. All things I enjoy. The only downside is it’s followed by winter – which lasts waaaay tooooo loooong in the Midwest.


  2. irene / Sep 6 2014 1:26 pm

    Oh my Gosh! I’d be picking those berries for a flower arrangement , I always learn so much when I visit you. Thank you.


  3. laurelrainsnow / Sep 6 2014 2:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing those poison ivy facts! They are lovely to look at…but not much else is going for them, I see.


  4. Mary / Sep 6 2014 2:59 pm

    Oh I didn’t know it changed colors in the Fall! Thanks for posting the info and pic. It’s so pretty I can imagine some poor unsuspecting soul (me!) clipping some for a Fall arrangement.


  5. Sue / Sep 6 2014 3:43 pm

    That was a very vigorous plant. I’ve never seen one quite so lush–and hope I don’t encounter one in the future. It makes me itchy to think about it.


    • Leslie / Sep 6 2014 3:50 pm

      And those are two different plants in wooded areas several miles apart. The one with the autumn color is from my archives – I saw it a few years ago. The plants seem to be getting healthier the last few years.


  6. readerbuzz / Sep 6 2014 8:12 pm

    I’m not allergic, thank goodness. We have it everywhere around here.


  7. diane / Sep 6 2014 9:00 pm

    I lived 45 years without poison ivy and then we moved to RI and I got it every year for 10 years. Fortunately, condo living for the last 5 years has helped be avoid it more recently.


  8. BermudaOnion / Sep 6 2014 9:03 pm

    I can’t identify poison ivy and luckily have never gotten into it. My father-in-law had to be hospitalized with it one time.


  9. Suko / Sep 7 2014 4:55 pm

    A lovely and informative post! Thanks, Leslie!


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