How to identify poison ivy

16 March, 2015

Spring is landscaping season, which means you'll be spending quality time with your gardening gloves soon. Planting a fresh haul of flowers is an exciting start to the season, but there's one plant that we always fail to spot while we're elbows deep in soil: poison ivy. We've all heard the adage "Leaves of three, let it be," but this has proven to be almost hilarious advice – many plants produced three-pronged leaves. Luckily, there are far easier (and more definitive) ways to distinguish poison ivy from just another green plant. Here's what you need to know:

Blame it on urushiol

Urushiol is the oily resin that makes you break out in an itchy rash when you come in contact with poison ivy. It's not contagious, but it does transfer incredibly easily from plant to skin (and even onto pet fur), so spreading the stuff all over your body isn't difficult to do.

It doesn't always look the same

Just to make detecting poison ivy even more difficult, this unfortunate weed looks different depending on the season and the age of the plant. The edges of the leaves can be jagged or smooth, while the size of the leaf varies greatly. Poison ivy will be red and orange in the fall and the spring and bright green during the summer. In short, poison ivy leaves tell you nothing unless you're a skilled botanist and have spent hours pouring over the all its different variations. This plant does have one consistency, though: It will always have three leaves, even if it isn't the only plant to do so.

It sometimes has tiny flowers or berries

If you can't always count on the leaves to expose the menacing plant, you'll have to look elsewhere. One summertime giveaway is the growth of tiny green flowers that cluster near the base of the leaves. In the fall, poison ivy will have tiny white berries that birds and deer like to munch on, which explains how poison ivy seems to grow everywhere. 

It's always on the edge of something

Poison ivy likes to be in partial sunlight in areas that people have at least partially developed. That's why it's frequently found along fence lines and roadways. When you find yourself along the perimeter of something, watch your step. We'd also recommend you avoid putting any outdoor furniture in this area, just in case.

The roots can be hairy

When an older poison ivy plant grows near trees, it will sometimes extend thin aerial roots and clamp them to the trunk. At first glance, it may seem like these roots belong to the tree itself, but they're a dead giveaway that a rash-in-the-making is lurking nearby. 

Hopefully, this helps make landscaping nothing but a pleasant experience this year. When in doubt, we always stick to one simple piece of advice: If it looks like it might be poison ivy, it's best to stay far away.