The Poisoned Three; Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac
“Leaves of three, let it be”. Poison ivy and poison oak may not be the only three leaved plants out there, but knowing this little rhyme will help you not freak out at the sight of Virginia creeper (which has five leaves). However, the two plants frequently grow right next to each other, so frolicking through Virginia creeper may not be the wisest of choices. Kudzu also grows with a three leaf pattern, though the leaves have smooth shallow lobes that are symmetrical. The side leaflets almost look like butterfly wings. However, like Virginia creeper, kudzu frequently grows right alongside poison ivy.
Avoid touching these plants by wearing long sleeves and pants when frolicking in woody areas. That’s a good idea anyway, ’cause ticks and thorns. Make sure everyone with you knows how to identify them, or at least what to avoid until you can come over and identify them. Don’t go randomly touching plants without looking at them, before you move something out of your way make sure to give it a once over (again, a good idea for other reasons. If I grab a spider, things are going to get embarrassing). If you have a hiking stick, you can use it to move things out of your way that you don’t want to touch. If you do use it to move one of these plants, wash the stick off later with dish soap (or toss it, we like to keep our walking sticks). Don’t touch the area until then.
If you come into contact with these plants, don’t scratch. Don’t touch anything to avoid contaminating what you touch with oils. In fact, change your shoelaces once you’ve walked through these plants so the laces don’t become contaminated and make you break out every time you tie your shoes. Wash off your shoes as well, and launder your clothing carefully. If the oil gets on something, it could take five years for it to no longer make you break out when you touch it. If you had pets with you, wash them carefully as well.
After washing the affected area with dishsoap, apply cold compresses or over the counter medications such as corticosteroid creams or calamine lotion. Do not take a bath to remove the oil from the plants, the oil could disperse in the water and give you a much larger problem. Do not use regular bath soap. Just wash the affected area, using a dish soap that can degrease (like Dawn). Baths with oatmeal are said to help, perhaps fill a nylon stocking with some and use that as a sponge in the bath. Some people say that baking soda and apple cider vinegar speed healing. Tomato juice may get rid of it immediately. I’ve never had this rash, so I can’t really give much advice on treatment. Call a doctor if you run a fever, get infected blisters, are covered by more than 1/4 of your body in a rash, or if the rash gets into your mouth, eyes, or genitals.
If you run across these in your lawn or garden and you wish to remove them, pulling might not be enough (use gloves, wash your tools and the gloves when done). Cover the area with a piece of black plastic to heat up and kill the roots. You can also try pouring boiling water on the roots. Do not ever burn, the smoke will be full of the oils and get all over you and into your lungs, which can possibly kill you. If you run across poison ivy vines going up a tree when out gathering firewood, don’t use a chainsaw to cut it down or you’ll fill the air with irritating dust.
All three plants bear white to creamy yellow berries that may stay on the plant through the winter and spring.
Poison ivy can grow as a vine, bush, groundcover, or solitary plant. The leaves are compound, with three leaflets to a petiole (stem), sure enough. The center or terminal leaf (at the end) is slightly larger than the two leaves on the side. Also, the side leaves lack a stalk and connect directly to the stem, where the terminal leaf has a small stem. The top of the leaves are somewhat waxy or shiny and a darker green than the underside, which can be a little fuzzy. Don’t count on them being shiny though, sometimes they aren’t.
The leaves may have small reddish spots on them, especially in summer, and may turn red in the fall. Sometimes (but not always) the new leaves in the spring have a reddish hue that fades to light green before darkening in the mature leaf, though mature leaves sometimes take on a reddish hue toward he end of summer. The edges are irregular, sometimes smooth and sometimes jagged, but do not tend to be quite symmetrical. Any points on them are likely to be somewhat dulled or curved. Sometimes there are no points or jags, and the edges are completely smooth. Be careful in the fall, sometimes a leaflet or two will fall before the others, making the three leaf pattern into one or two leaves. At this time of year look for asymmetrical leaves.
The vine is brown and hairy, rough, or ragged in appearance. Here’s the fun bit, in the winter when all the leaves are gone and you have nothing but a hairy vine in front of you, it can still make you break out in a rash, even if it’s just the “hair”. Make it a habit to not touch vines you can’t rule out as this or poison oak. Flowers may be a dull grey, yellow, or green. They have five petals and they grow in clusters.
Now go and practice identifying it. Here too. Those galleries are kind of cracking me up. There’s a lot of “nope, that’s not poison ivy, it’s totally safe. That little plant under it though? That one with two leaves poking up from the upper left hand corner of the page? That actually is poison ivy”.
Poison oak has lobed and somewhat fuzzy leaves, with a little row of fuzz visible on the outer edge. The lobes may appear more as gently jagged edges with rounded corners. It grows in tall clumps as a shrub or as a ground cover. It may look like a vine the way it crawls along the ground, but it does not easily climb. Poison oak may turn orange or red in the fall. The branches are smooth and hairless, in the sense that they don’t have the rough and ragged look of poison ivy. A closer look will show a fuzzy appearance to the vine. Like poison ivy, the leaves are asymmetrical and it may be shiny on top and lighter and fuzzier on the bottom.
Poison sumac grows as a shrub or a small tree. It likes soggy soils and can be as tall as fifteen feet. The pinnately compound (feather like) leaves have 7 to 13 leaflets with smooth edges. The leaflets are opposite each other. The petiole is reddish in hue (the center stem on the compound leaf). That’s the main thing to remember, look for the reddish stem running down the compound leaf. Berry clusters start out green in the spring before they whiten, both the color of the petiole and the berries distinguish it from non-poisonous sumacs. The bark is smooth on young pants, but it does roughen with age. In the fall, leaves turn from yellow to orange to red. Here’s some good images of it, notice how it has smooth edges unlike the false poison sumac with serrated edges.
Right, that’s the main three that hikers need to know. If you’ve got kids who like to play in the woods (or like me, someone you love who frequently has outdoor jobs), make sure they know how to identify these as well. Here’s another gallery of all three plants, there’s plenty more on the web but I warn you an image search will also include some stomach churning rashes.
Kids especially should also know how to avoid hemlock, and that even bare stems of hemlock can be poisonous, so to never put any unidentified stick in their mouth. A few kids have died making whistles. So, take a look a that page as well, and I’d say that’s the bare minimum to know when playing in the woods. If you have the mind to forage, you might spend some time studying other toxic and poisonous plants, especially those commonly misidentified with wild edibles.