Poison ivy is a well-known plant that’s common in the undergrowth of North America. With characteristic triads of leaves, it seems like it should be easy to identify poison ivy. However, there are several subspecies or varieties of poison ivy that make identification a bit tricky.
If you think you might have poison ivy on your property or regularly spend time foraging for food in the woods, it’s high time you learned to properly identify and remove poison ivy infestations. We’ll also be sure to cover what to do if you do touch poison ivy and get a nasty reaction.
Be sure to also keep an eye out for other dangerous plants, like giant hogweed, when you’re out and about!
How to Identify Poison Ivy
Thousands of people have identified Poison Ivy using PlantSnap! But when you don’t have your phone with you, remember the rhyme – “Leaves of three, leave it be. Berries of white, best take flight.” I learned this rhyme as a young child. My father, a biologist worried about his adventurous daughter, ensured I had this rhyme memorized at a young age.
The rhyme refers to poison ivy and poison oak.
However, there are plenty of plants with triads of leaves or white berries that are not dangerous. This overly simplistic rhyme can still lead you astray. Rather than just looking at the number of leaves, look for these defining characteristics. When in doubt, just leave the plant alone.
- Pointy leaves. All three leaves should have pointed tips.
- Smooth or toothed edges, but not deeply lobed or serrated.
- The leaves generally look smooth, glossy, or shiny on top. The appearance can vary, but they should not be hairy or dusty.
- Leaves are generally a bit droopy.
- Middle leaf is largest.
- The side two leaves grow directly from the stem.
- Color is a tricky indicator for poison ivy. Its leaves may be red in the spring or fall and range from dark green to bright green. They may also have yellow tones, particularly in the fall.
- Berries, if present, are white or light yellow.
The leaves can range from shiny to dull and can have sleek edges or slight toothing. To further complicate matters, poison ivy can be a ground cover plant, a climbing vine, or a trailing vine.
Its leaves can be quite reddish in the fall but will be green or yellow other times of the year. It is generally a short plant, just 10-14 inches off the ground – unless it’s climbing up something else. To complicate matters, it might grow as a bush in the Western US.
Common edible plants, like blackberries, may resemble poison ivy to the untrained eye. Poison ivy doesn’t have the spines or tasty berries, though!
Poison ivy is found across North America, with the exception of the far north and parts of the southwestern deserts. It generally grows in shady areas and prefers disturbed areas. Be extra careful if you spend time looking for edible plants in urban areas, as poison ivy is also common in this sort of ecosystem.
When you’re unsure if the plant you’re looking at is poison ivy, the best course of action is to leave it alone. Don’t touch the plant while you’re trying to identify it. Apps like PlantSnap may be able to help you identify the plant without touching it.
How to Remove Poison Ivy
If you’ve identified poison ivy on your property, you probably would like to remove it. Since touching poison ivy generally results in itchy rashes and even blisters, it’s not a simple matter of just pulling the plant out. Additionally, inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy can cause damage to your lungs. Mowing poison ivy is also a risky idea, as the chopped-up leaves release even more of the reaction-causing sap.
In other words, there are a lot of ways not to remove poison ivy effectively.
As with most pesky plants, there are two main ways to remove poison ivy. You can cut it and/or pull it (manual removal), or you can use chemicals to kill it (chemical removal). The most effective method of all, though, is to combine manual and chemical removal to eradicate poison ivy.
- Gear up. Cover your body with long sleeves, high socks, rubber gloves, and even goggles or a facemask. A handkerchief will do the trick if you’re in a pinch. Tuck your pants into your socks and ensure that your gloves don’t leave gaps at your sleeves.
- Pick a good time. Dry days with no wind are best. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally spread leaves or toxic herbicides to the wind.
- Manually remove as much as you can. Use shears to trim the plants away as much as possible. Do not rip or shred the leaves. You can also dig up roots, especially in a smaller infestation.
- Spray what’s left. Use glyphosate or triclopyr (commonly known as Roundup and Brush-B-Gon). These chemicals are both easily purchased at most garden centers as well as Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Walmart.
- Note: if you’d rather avoid herbicides, no worries. You’ll be able to remove the plant manually by cutting it back and digging up roots. It will just take longer and you’re more exposed to the toxins.
- Dispose of the plant properly. Burning poison ivy is very dangerous, as the smoke can cause serious damage to your lungs. Don’t compost it either, as it may grow from your bin! Use secure, thick black plastic bags and put the poison ivy in the trash. Dispose of your gloves as well.
- Be careful to remove all shreds of poison ivy carefully. I once had a nasty experience where I walked (barefoot)over a few shreds of poison ivy leaf. They’d blown away while I removed a plant almost a week before, and I ended up with horrific rashes and blisters all over my feet and lower legs!
- Clean your gear. Rinse your pruners, shears, and shovel with rubbing alcohol before storing them. Don’t forget to rinse the handles, and oil the joints once they’re dry to prevent rust. Wash your clothes separately and rinse your boots thoroughly with cold, soapy water.
Keep in mind that poison ivy often propagates with long runners and can regrow from relatively small surviving roots. You often will need several rounds of attack to fully remove a poison ivy infestation.
What Happens if I Accidentally Touch Poison Ivy?
Almost everyone has a nasty reaction when they brush up against poison ivy. Some people react more strongly than others and can even get irritated lungs from walking near poison ivy. Other people are a bit less susceptible, but almost everyone is “allergic” to this plant. Deer, meanwhile, can happily munch on this plant.
For most people, their reaction to poison ivy results in a raised, itchy rash that may turn into blisters full of clear liquid. The reaction generally takes 5-12 days to clear up but may persist for up to a month.
If you touch poison ivy, immediately wash the affected area with cold running water and soap. Hot water opens pores and can make things worse.
You can relieve the itching of a poison ivy reaction with calamine lotion, oral antihistamines, and cortisone. Oatmeal baths can also help reduce the swelling, itching, and heat.
Keep in mind that removing poison ivy is risky business. It’s very difficult to remove this tenacious plant without getting exposed!