Many Clients and Friends are always asking me about the identification of Poison Ivy and how to treat it. Below is general information I have gathered over the years. Poison Ivy foliage does change shape over time. This could be part of its survival strategy. See info and photos below:
Poison Ivy is a threat all year long since the roots as well as the foliage bear the irritant, but now, the plant has leafed out, and is showing up everywhere. Those vines you are pulling out of a shrub, or the shallow roots you are pulling from the ground are probably Poison Ivy. Unfortunately, the Urushiol in the foliage, stems and roots can also cause the rash that plagues so many of us. We can all recognize the hairy vines that are frequently winding up the side of a tree. It is the immature vine without easily visible hairs that will fool us every time.
Identification can be tricky. Betty, a weed specialist claims that Poison Ivy must have 3 leaves. After over 20 years in the field, I must respectfully disagree. Once the plant leafs out, understand that the size and shape of the leaves changes over time. The immature plant has 5 whorled, serrated leaves. As it matures, it will morph from 5 to 4 to 3 leaves, and gradually the serration will disappear. The photos attached should help you with your identification.
IMMATURE POISON IVY ON FOREST FLOOR
5 Whorled Leaves, Serrated Edges
MATURE POISON IVY
3 Leaves, Smooth Edge, Hairy Stem attached to Tree, Smaller Branchlets Extending Off
POISON IVY – NEWLY EMERGED PLANT
Notice the first 2 leaves (the cotyledons) are heart shaped. The next to appear has 3 leaves, then 5 leaves.
When much older, the leaves will convert back to a 3-leaf form.
POISON IVY COLONY
Some 5-Leaf, One 4-Leaf, Some 3-Leaf
POISON IVY COLONY
5 Whorled Leaves on Ground, 3 Leaves Climbing the Tree
POISON IVY COLONY
Some Plants Have 5 Leaves, Some Have 3
POISON IVY WITH ENGLISH IVY
The Poison Ivy has the Big Leaves
Shelley asked…How can you tell the difference between the young Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper?
It’s very difficult. The size, configuration and leaf indentations are almost identical. I just took a close look at some Virginia Creeper, and observed the following:
- Virginia Creeper has aerial rootlets and tendrils that appear every few inches and end in a circular suction disc. The Poison Ivy vine will have tiny hairs all over that serve as its aerial rootlets. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to see on young plants.
- The Virginia Creeper can have a reddish center where the 5 whorled leaves come together. Poison Ivy is always green in the center.
- The Virginia Creeper I observed had a glossy green petiole about 5 inches long, and very sturdy, about 1/8 inch calliper. The young Poison Ivy could have a petiole up to 5 inches in length, but is usually about 1/16 inch caliper, and is usually dull green or dull tan.
- Virginia Creeper will turn red in the fall. Poison Ivy can be beautiful in the fall, turning red, yellow and orange, if in sufficient light. In the deep shade of the woods, it just turns brown.
My recommendation: Look for the tendrils, and the reddish center.
VIRGINIA CREEPER FOLIAGE
With Red Center Visible
Aerial Tendrils. Notice the Difference in the Leaves.
Even Virginia Creeper Foliage Can Morph.
WHEN YOU GO OUT IN THE GARDEN OR THE WOODS…
My recommendation is to wear gloves, long sleeves and pants. If this is too onerous due to the heat, then be sure to wash frequently with cold water and Dawn. Sometimes, I wash my skin with mud as a quick intermediate step. I used to apply Ivy Block before heading out into the garden, but am no longer able to locate this wonderful product. If you know of something similar, please let me know. The Ivy Block lotion would form a protective coating between your skin and the Urushiol.
There is a new product on the market, Zanfel which has been extremely effective after exposure. As soon as I can after exposure, I apply the product creating a paste with a bit of COLD water, and keep massaging until the irritation dissipates. Washing with COLD water and Dawn has worked well for many people.
Some people swear by Technu Extreme after exposure. Annetta says, many have been successfully using Technu Extreme when exposed to Poison Ivy while gardening. Keep a tube in the car, kitchen and shower and apply it after each gardening day as a prophylactic. You can wait up to 8 hours after touching the plant for it to work. Simple Technu does not work as well. The trick is to apply it with a bit of COLD water and to rub it in for 20-30 seconds.
After the rash appears, I use Caladryl lotion which provides significant relief.
Another option after exposure is to apply cold water, Fast Orange and pumice. Fast Orange is relatively inexpensive, and available in most hardware stores. I have a client who swears by this method. Be sure to use cold water to keep the skin pores closed.
After exposure, wash your gloves and boots with dirt to remove the surface oils. Some follow with a Dawn bath, but I never bother. Immediately, wash all of your clothes, and your skin. The sooner you wash, the more diminished will be the rash. The oil will stay active on clothing for hours, so people frequently have secondary exposure which leads them to think that the rash is spreading.
Good luck, and I hope this helps reduce your unpleasant encounters with Poison Ivy.