Leaves of three, let them be… Leaves of five, let them thrive!
Although us horticulturist know better.. they are really leaflets, as it is a compound leaf. I don’t want to mess with the original poetry, so whatever keeps you away from this itchy stuff, I’ll continue to chant!
Many of you may not have heard the last part of this saying, but it is to prevent the beautiful, native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) from being lumped in with poison ivy. They both also have beautiful red, fall coloring.
I’ll discuss some of the look alikes and general areas it can be found. This guide will hopefully help you avoid this itchy plant!
Poor Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens)… He likes to grow in all the same areas poison ivy grows. Later on after he blooms, he doesn’t resemble it as much. Trillium does have three leaves and blooms about the same time as poison ivy, although most seasoned hikers can distinguish it. This one only fools the newbies!
The winning doppelganger comes in the form of a box elder (Acer negundo). This weed tree is very prolific and seedlings sprout up very easily. When they are seedlings, they have a striking resemblance to the poison ivy leaf, without the red stem tho, that’s the tell. As they grow, they develop another set of leaves (leaflets) which would bring the total to 5 leaflets, thus lighting the way to pull this weed. Ok, maybe we do need to work on that poem….
Where To Find It:
Poison ivy is found in our Midwestern forests & natural areas. It can be a small shrub, ground cover, but mostly seen here as a vine, in shadier areas, growing on the north side of trees. It likes wetter areas, but can tolerate drier soils.
Poison ivy’s leaf shapes vary from smooth and round, to narrow and sharp, with any number of lobes. Lobes can be sharp or rounded. Lobes may be symmetric or asymmetric on the same leaf, or within the same group of leaves. The leaves are often a reddish or brownish color when they are very young and in fall they turn yellow/red like other fall foliage. The stem in the location of the three leaves tends to be redder. Arisaema atrorubens
Why You Itch:
Poison ivy’s main component that causes the skin irritation is Urushiol. It is an oily resin that is found on the stems and leaves of poison ivy and several other related species. It causes contact dermatitis — an immune-mediated skin inflammation. This oily ingredient can even cause irritation during the winter!
Ironically, animals are immune to the oils, deer feed on the leaves and birds use the vine as living spaces along with eating the berries in fall. They do not have any reactions to the oily resin, contrary to humans. However, the oils can be transferred from your dog to your hands if you pet them.
Eh Gads, I’m Up To My Elbows! Now What?
As soon as you notice your mistake… TAKE ACTION! Speed is of the essence. The less oils you can have soak into your skin, the better.
Many washes are available. These should be brought with you hiking. Zanfel has worked great for our crews. The wash works by surrounding urushiol and bonding with it, enabling it to be rinsed away with water.
Another folk remedy is to smash the stems of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and apply to skin. Luckily, they tend to grow near each other!
Other methods of relief.
- Cool colloidal oatmeal baths
- Cold, wet compresses that can be applied for 15 to 30 minutes a few times each day
- Anti-itch creams, such as Calamine Lotion, Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion, or Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream with Natural Colloidal Oatmeal, zinc oxide,
- Oral antihistamines such as Atarax (hydroxyzine), Benadryl or prescription strength.
- Oral steroids, such as Orapred or Prednisone.
- Topical steroid creams.
- A steroid shot, Kenalog (triamcinolone acetonide)
Without further adieu, here is my Poison Ivy Gallery: