Most writers or “survival experts” have some article about poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. They will tell you about what the leaves look like, and how to tell the difference between the three. They then give you a list of the things that poison ivy can do to your skin if you touch it. My main focus will not be on all of the different poisonous shrubs that you should not touch today, it will be on the ones that look poisonous, or many people mistake as such, but really aren’t extremely harmful if you do touch them.
If you want to know how to identify poison ivy, you have found the right page, but you can also learn the harmless look-a-likes like Virginia creeper, blackberry, fragrant sumac, young maple, and elderberry as well
The main things to look for on poison ivy are:
- 3 leaflets: Occasionally a leaf will only have 2 leaflets, but never more than three.
- Thorn-less vines
- Leaves are arranged alternately on the stem instead of opposite
What characteristics may be on poison ivy, but are NOT always true (so never rely on these):
- Red and Green stems
- Red dots in the middle of the three leaflets
- “Hairy” stems
- Shiny and/or red leaves
- Notched leaf pattern
- White or pale yellow flowers and white berries (only true when in bloom and fruiting)
I really just wanted to give you a basic knowledge of what to look for in poison ivy before I go into the other plants that look similar.
There are many plants in the woods that people confuse with poison ivy. Some are harmless, while others are even edible. Many of which have 3 leaflets.
Blackberry or Raspberry vs Poison Ivy:
When people look for 3 leaflets, they may mistake blackberry or raspberry for poison ivy because the leaves often have leaf “notches” as well. These plants have thorns on the stems. Poison ivy may be smooth or hairy, but it doesn’t have thorns. Don’t miss out on a free meal because you thought it was poison ivy. Blackberry generally has more of a jagged, saw-tooth pattern on the leaves.
Virginia Creeper vs Poison Ivy:
Another plant that may have 3 leaflets is called Virginia Creeper. The stems, external roots, and similar shape of the leaves can confuse people. Typically mature leaves have 5 leaflets, but new developing leaves may have three. Remember that poison ivy doesn’t have more than three leaflets anywhere on the stem.
Young Maple or Box Elder vs Poison Ivy:
Young Maple Trees and Box Elder Saplings are also mistaken as poison ivy. Box Elder may start with three leaves on young leaflets as well, but you can tell that it isn’t poison ivy when the leaf arrangement is the “opposite leaf pattern”. Two leaves will be attached at the same location on a stem but on the opposite side.
Fragrant Sumac vs Poison Ivy:
Fragrant Sumac looks a lot like poison ivy, has leaves of three, has some notching o the leaves, but without the teeth. The big difference, which I mess up on occasion, is that it grows in a bush instead of a vine. It is extremely hard to tell this on a young Sumac unless it is fruiting the red berries. The berries may be made into a sumac-ade, and taste similar to lemonade. I also think, although I have not done so, that the roots and shoots may be pealed and eaten raw during the spring.
When training children there are two rules of thumb that they need to learn first, and THEN you may teach them the exceptions to the rule:
- Leaves of Three, Let it Be
- Berries white, poisonous sight
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