Learning Poison Ivy

A while back I wrote an article on identifying Poison Ivy vs. Wild Sarsaparilla. I wrote it because when I went searching for how to ID both plants by their roots I came up empty. I won’t repeat that info here, you can read the post if you are interested.

But, my children all have their own homes now and I got asked by one of them to verify if what she was seeing was Poison Ivy. Meanwhile, before I could get to her house, I took some photos while on a walk (our streets in rural Princeton are lined with Poison Ivy) and sent them to the kids. The intent for taking these photos, too, was to get this information on my blog to help others. As I started writing, in the process of verifying a Poison Ivy fact, I found this online poison ivy identification guide which is really great. But I’m going to still do this post, because I have the photos, and I even labeled one of them. I think they’ll be helpful.

Is it Poison Ivy?

Here we go. I’m keeping this photo big, so you can see Poison Ivy (and one Virginia Creeper) in all its glory. Let’s go through what I labeled.

  1. These are two sets of young leaves. One seen from the top, one tipped so you can see from underneath. (First time I’ve ever seen Poison Ivy from underneath!) Note the red tinge in young leaves. And on the stems.
  2. This set of leaves is slightly older but still on the young side. They are smaller and still have a bit of reddish-brown, especially the ones behind and to the right of the leaf I labeled 2.
  3. The stem of the center leaf is longer than the two side leaves, which are very close to the main stem.
  4. Poison Ivy leaves are smooth but often have wonky edges. I always look for these mitten-shaped leaves as confirmation.
  5. This leaf is pretty boring and regular, but it’s still Poison Ivy! And notice that the leaves get pretty green as they mature. The stems keep their reddish tinge, though.
  6. This is not Poison Ivy. This is a young Virginia Creeper set of leaves. It generally has 5 leaves, even though this one has 6. And while trying to validate that this was still Virginia Creeper with 6 leaves, I found that it could sometimes have 3 leaves. In that case, just stay away from it* or look for 5 leaves on the same vine. Virginia Creeper is only (highly) poisonous if you eat it.

*When in doubt, I always assume poison ivy and leave it be. You know, that “leaves of 3, let it be” saying. It is nice once you learn to recognize it. It will save you a lot of pain. Itchy, itchy pain.

Here’s another thing about poison ivy that I don’t see mentioned but it’s one of the things I look for. Poison Ivy generally has a droopy appearance, meaning the leaves hang down from the main stem, not shoot up. It almost looks like a plant that needs water.

And here’s another photo for you. This is just a straight-up, full-on, Poison Ivy patch. <shudder> Makes me itch just looking at it.

How to Treat Poison Ivy

I am one of the lucky ones who doesn’t typically get Poison Ivy. However, I also have great respect for it. I am able to pull it up and immediately wash my hands, and I’m usually okay. Except for one time. One time I decided to tackle a large patch of Poison Ivy in one area of our yard. I spent 45 minutes pulling up vines and shoving them in plastic bags. I wore long sleeves and gloves and I washed anything that came in contact with the plant. But, apparently, there was a gap between my gloves and sleeve and I wound up with a rash on the inside of my wrist. I mean, I’m sure that area was repeatedly scraped by vines as I shoved them into those bags. Their revenge. And that is the time I learned how bad a Poison Ivy rash really is.

Because I was in the midst of my herbal studies, I went to the plants for relief. I knew that Jewelweed was a treatment (the juice in the stems) and rubbed that on the rash. I made a poultice with a few things (I thought I had written a blog post about this but I couldn’t find it, so I don’t remember all of the things). I remember it had Plantain, an astringent, for drying up the rash. And it most likely had Jewelweed and Aloe to soothe the itch. I don’t know if it ultimately sped up the healing process, but I used it for a few days then ultimately wound up getting the most relief from baking soda mixed with water to make a paste. Which is the same remedy I use for bee stings.

If you are exposed to Poison Ivy, look to see if there is any Jewelweed nearby (they grow in the same conditions and are often found near each other) and break open their hollow stem and rub the juice on the exposed area. You might even preemptively do that if you are planning on pulling up some Poison Ivy to add a layer of protective juice to your skin. I’m not sure if that will actually work but I’m going to try it. I, unfortunately, don’t have a plant profile on this site for Jewelweed, but you can use google to find some photos. Or come by Dandelion Forest if you are local and I can show it to you. I’ll show you our Poison Ivy, too. Because that darn patch I worked on has roots growing under huge rocks that can’t be moved by human strength and so any removal is only temporary. This year it is flourishing. 🙁

Final Thoughts

Poison Ivy is often an edge plant—growing where forest meets yard, shade meets sun. I think of it as here to protect the forest from us cutting-things-down-without-thinking-about-it humans. Poison Ivy, Guardian of the Forest. Gaia’s sentry. Thinking of Poison Ivy that way, knowing that it is practically impossible to eradicate, and knowing that if I challenge it too strongly I will pay the price, makes me have a deep respect for this ubiquitous plant. Poison Ivy is also one of nature’s reminders that humans are not the most powerful beings on earth. A humbling plant, it is.

And, to leave on a fun note, here is a poison ivy joke for you. I kid you not, there is a poison ivy joke out there:

In ancient Rome, there were four kinds of poisons.

Poisons I, II, and III would kill you instantly…but poison IV would just make you itchy.

Ba dum dum, ching!

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