Poison Ivy | Naughty and Nice, a Nuanced Native

Poison ivy is a vilified vine — and it deserves respect, especially for those who are allergic to it. A native of Western North Carolina, it actually provides ecological benefits, including in places that have been degraded by construction, soil compaction, or invasive species. Poison ivy can grow in some of the harshest conditions and actually can make the environment more suitable for other plants. It can climb up trees with its hairy vine to reach areas of sunlight, though it doesn’t damage trees like some non-native climbing vines. It also produces berries that birds love to devour and its roots break up heavily compacted soils so other plants may grow. When you see a large patch of poison ivy, it’s a bit like seeing yellow caution tape blocking your path. Caution! Work In Progress! Identifying poison ivy is crucial for avoiding its irritating effects. Here are some key features to look out for:

  • Leaves of Three: The most well-known characteristic of Poison Ivy is its trifoliate leaves. Each leaf grouping has three leaflets, with the center leaflet having a longer stem than the two side leaflets. This distinctive feature gives rise to the saying, “Leaves of three, let it be.”
  • Leaf Shape and Texture: The leaflets can vary in shape, ranging from smooth-edged to slightly toothed or lobed. They are typically shiny and can appear in various shades of green, appearing reddish when emerging in the spring, and yellow, orange, or red in the fall.
  • Vine Characteristics: Poison ivy often grows as a vine that can climb trees, fences, and other structures. The vine is covered in tiny, hair-like roots that give the vine a fuzzy appearance. This is an important feature to distinguish it from other vines.
  • Growth Habits: Poison ivy can grow as a ground cover, a climbing vine, or a shrub. In open areas, it often forms dense mats on the ground, while in forested areas, it prefers climbing trees to reach sunlight.
  • Berries: In late summer and fall, poison ivy produces small, white to greenish-yellow berries. These berries are a favorite food for many bird species, which help disperse the plant’s seeds.
  • Seasonal Changes: The plant undergoes significant changes throughout the seasons. In spring, the leaves can have a reddish tint, while in fall, they may turn vibrant shades of red, yellow, or orange. This seasonal variation can make identification challenging but also offers clues to its presence.

A Local Look-Alike

Understandably, people look to remove poison ivy from yards, parks, or places that people frequent. Sometimes those leaves of three and hairy vine can be confused with another plant that grows in very similar conditions – Virginia Creeper. When Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is young it may only have three leaves before maturing to its typical five. Virginia Creeper does have a similar hairy vine that climbs trees and can cover the ground. So, to be sure of your plant identification, follow the vine to see if there are groups of five leaves anywhere along its length. As with many plants, it shouldn’t be ingested by humans, but it does produce berries that wildlife enjoy, prevents soil erosion, produces beautiful Fall foliage and does not contain itch-inducing urushiol like poison ivy. Perhaps an addition to the old adage is in order: Leaves of three, let it be. Leaves of five, let it thrive.

A Natural Remedy

If you are unlucky enough to miss the presence of poison ivy, you may expose your skin to urushiol oils. Urushiol, the compound that makes sensitive people itch, doesn’t affect the native wildlife. The rash many experience is actually the immune system defending itself against a threat that doesn’t really exist. When that allergic reaction occurs you may seek out your local pharmacy for relief. However, you can also find natural relief growing as a companion plant next to poison ivy. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also known as touch-me-not, produces bright orange flowers with seed pods that pop and send seeds flying with the lightest touch. Simply crush, grind or blend jewelweed stems and leaves and apply to the affected area. Allow your jewelweed poultice to sit on the rash for an hour before rinsing off. Many people find this poultice reduces the itchiness, redness and swelling of their poison ivy rash.