Poison ivy, along with deer ticks, mosquitoes, allergies caused by such plants as ragweed, and bad neighbors, is one of the banes of existence for the landscaping enthusiast. Below I focus on the battle with Rhus radicans from three perspectives. Learn the facts about:
What poison ivy looks like
How to get rid of the vines
And -- in case something goes wrong with #1 and/or #2 -- how to treat the rash
I begin with some pictures since, at the very least, you should learn what poison ivy looks like, so that you can avoid coming into contact with it and contracting a rash:
1. Poison Ivy Pictures
Unfortunately, trying to identify poison ivy is like trying to hit a moving target. A young vine will look markedly different from an older vine. Furthermore, while you have to beware coming into contact with poison ivy during the spring, summer, fall and winter (even in cold climates), the vine appears in a different guise in each of the four seasons.
Thus the need for a photo gallery that captures the vine in all its various aspects. For example, find out what poison ivy looks like:
2. The Facts About Poison Ivy: An Introduction
Overwhelmed by all there is to discover about poison ivy? This introductory article will point you in the right direction. On Page 1 of the article, learn about the vine's connection with other plants in the Rhus (sometimes given as Toxicodendron) genus while finding out what poison ivy looks like. On Page 2, I provide some basic answers to questions regarding treatment, such as, Is poison ivy rash contagious? But for many of you, Page 3 will be your destination, because there I discuss how to get rid of poison ivy.
3. Identification of Poison Ivy
Want a bit of extra help in identifying the vine? Then you may be interested in a product on the market that I tested.
The product is a patch that you can wear on a boot, for example, and can warn you if you've come into contact with urushiol, the active irritant principle contained in the vine. The idea is that, after receiving the warning, you could then go inside and wash off adjacent skin surfaces.
Since this patch isn't foolproof, I recommend it only as a learning tool. First, get a basic idea of what poison ivy looks like using my pictures. Then, when you think you've spotted some of it, confirm the identification using the patch.
4. How to Remove Poison Ivy
Confident now that you know what poison ivy looks like? You may wish to proceed to the next step: safely removing poison ivy from your landscape. Removing it from your landscape may be easier than avoiding it. Problem is, removing it means coming into contact with the vine, which is hardly a pleasant thought!
But the tips in this article will help you do the job safely. Learn:
What to wear for the job
What supplies you'll need
When you should undertake the operation
How to proceed with the removal
What you should and should not do afterward
The saying goes: "Leaflets three, let them be," but if the itchy vine invades your garden, it's not so easy to ignore it; you're better off just removing poison ivy altogether. Accidental contact with the leaves can leave a painful rash on bare skin, making this one weed that's just too risky to have around. Even if you prefer to garden organically, a chemical weed killer is the fastest, most effective way to remove this menace.
Time Required: Depends on size of poison ivy patch. May have to be repeated more than once.
Know the enemy. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American plant that takes several forms. On most of the continent, it's a climbing or trailing perennial vine. In Western states, it's a shrubby bush that grows to about 3 feet. The leaves, which grow on alternate sides of each stem, come in sets of 3 glossy-green leaflets that can be pointed, smooth-sided, lobed or saw-toothed. Early in spring the leaves are red, and in fall they turn a bright scarlet-orange. The 1/4-inch fruits are dull yellow. For an in-depth identification of poison ivy and its imposters, see these pictures of poison ivy.
2.Dress for battle. All parts of the plant contain a toxic resin that causes a blistering rash on any part of your body it touches. So when removing poison ivy, always wear rubber gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into socks and boots or shoes that can be hosed off later. Goggles and a breathing mask are also recommended when removing poison ivy.
3.Time your attack. A dry day with no wind is the safest time for removing poison ivy, especially if you will be using an herbicide spray (you don't want the herbicide blowing back at you, nor do you want it blowing on landscape plants).
4.Cut plants to ground level. With shears or pruners, remove all the stems you can see and dispose of them in plastic garbage bags. Don't tear or rip the vines as this may disperse the resin into the air.
5.Dig out roots if you can. If there are only a few plants to remove, use the shovel to remove the roots. Bag these also for removal.
6.Destroy what's left. If you have many plants spread over a large area, cut as much of the top growth as you can, and then spray the remaining roots, stems and stubs with a chemical weed killer containing glyphosate (such as Roundup) or triclopyr (such as Ortho's Brush-B-Gon). For thick, shrubby stems, spray directly onto the cuts you've made. Remember to use extreme care when handling these herbicides, as the spray will kill all other garden plants it touches. Always follow the directions on the label for safest use.
7.Dispose of properly. Do not compost, shred or burn poison ivy. Inhaling the smoke can cause serious injury to your lungs. Put the plant parts in heavy plastic bags, tie the bags securely and put them in the trash. If you used rubber gloves, discard these as well.
8.Disinfect your clothes and your tools. Tools used for removing poison ivy must be disinfected. Rinse your pruners and shovel, including the handles, with rubbing alcohol. Let them dry and then oil the parts to prevent rust. Likewise, the clothes you have on while removing poison ivy must be cleaned. Wash your clothing separately and clean your boots or shoes with cold, soapy water and a hose.
Poison ivy is a perennial plant that grows back from the roots and often spreads by means of underground runners. Removing poison ivy -- if it's a vigorous stand -- may take three or four tries.
If your skin comes into contact with the weed while you're removing poison ivy, wash the affected area with a strong soap, using cold water only (hot water opens your pores and allows the toxin to seep in). Hardware stores and drugstores have specialty soaps that can remove the poison sap. Treat a rash with a drying lotion (such as calamine) or one recommended specifically for poison ivy rash.
Back to > Poison Ivy: Just the Facts
What You Need:
Washable, tightly woven long-sleeve shirt and pants
Shoes or boots that can be washed or hosed off
Goggles and breathing mask
Sharp pruning shears or a hand pruner
Heavy black plastic garbage bags and ties
Herbicide containing glyphosate or triclopyr (e.g., Roundup, Ortho Brush-B-Gon)
6. How to Identify Poison Ivy
Did you think that you had learned how to identify poison ivy once and for all after you had memorized the rhyme "leaves of three, let it be"? Well, think again! There are plenty of look-alikes that bear foliage comprised of three leaflets. You must take your identification efforts to the next level if you wish to venture out into the brush with the confidence that you can sidestep this menace -- and thereby avoid getting the rash.
But while look-alikes make it difficult to identify poison ivy, they are far from being the sole roadblock. The fact is, Rhus radicans (that's what botanists call the weed) doesn't always look the same. Its appearance can change:
From season to season
As it ages
And even from plant to plant
So as you will now understand, learning the leaflets-3 rhyme, while helpful, was just a baby step that you took in discovering how to identify poison ivy. You'll have to dig considerably deeper if you wish to rash-proof yourself through your identification skills. That's what I'm here to help you with. So pick up the proverbial shovel and let's get digging!
Basic Consideration: Leaf Shape
Besides the fact that poison ivy has a compound leaf (i.e., three leaflets or "mini-leaves" joined together), there's very little about its leaf shape that is consistent, except that the leaflets do taper to a point. This lack of uniformity means it's incumbent upon you to expose yourself (safely) to as many of the variations as possible.
You can do so by scouring my poison ivy pictures for examples.
Leaflet margins are often smooth, but they can also have tiny "teeth." Sometimes the poison ivy leaf shape includes a notch. In the latter case, a leaflet can have more than one point. Leaf size can vary quite a bit from plant to plant, and they may or may not be glossy.
As you can see from my picture above, the central leaflet is typically joined to the rest of the trio by a comparatively long stalk. Notice also that there is a leaf in the picture that is lighter in color than the rest; this is a new leaf that emerged in early summer, against a background of darker, older leaves.
Tips to Help You Identify Poison Ivy in Each Season
The most obvious way in which poison ivy's appearance changes from season to season is in leaf color:
Spring: various shades of red or orange
Fall: red, orange or yellow
Winter: none, because the leaves will have dropped off by this time
But the leaves don't tell the whole story. You can apply knowledge you gain here about other plant parts to help you identify poison ivy when the leaves, alone do not have you convinced.
For example, in the summer, if you look carefully, you can find poison ivy flowers. I know that may sound odd to beginners: the word "flowers" evokes images of beauty, and few would deem Rhus radicans beautiful. But poison ivy does bear clusters of small, greenish-white flowers.
Likewise, autumn brings with it another way to identify poison ivy: by the berries (called "drupes" if you want to get technical). Poison ivy berries become whitish and waxy in fall (they're a pale green in late summer).
This plant is deciduous, so where does that leave you in winter? Is it possible to identify poison ivy during Old Man Winter's reign, or do you have to wait until the leaves reappear in spring?
First of all, poison ivy doesn't totally disappear during the wintertime: it is a woody plant, maintaining branches above-ground. The question is, How are you going to identify poison ivy branches that have lost their leaves?
Well, you have two things to work with, potentially:
If the plant produced berries during the past summer and fall, those should still be around in winter (although their appearance will be somewhat weathered)
It is easy to identify poison ivy plants that are older at any time of year via their aerial roots
Regarding this second point, plants that have been around for a while can grow quite large, becoming what I like to call "hairy vines" (this is why I noted earlier that the plant's appearance changes as it ages). The "hairs" are actually aerial roots. In cases where the poison ivy vines are clinging to a tree, at first glance you may think that these little fibers are part of the tree, itself. But a closer look will reveal that the vine has embedded itself tightly into the tree.
By the way, you may wonder if it is important to know how to identify poison ivy in the winter. The answer is an emphatic "Yes." Just because its branches are bare, that doesn't mean it's not toxic. You can receive a rash from poison ivy at any time of year. Unfortunately, if the plant didn't produce berries and isn't old enough to have acquired that hairy look, you may have to wait until spring to get a positive ID on it. So be careful in the meantime!
The best way to grow confident that you can identify poison ivy (and thereby avoid running into it) is to follow the tips I've provided above (and review the pictures I've linked to) to gain an understanding of what it looks like in all four seasons of the year. When you go on your expeditions, bring a camera and take some photos, so that you can later download them to your computer and compare them to the pictures I've offered. Are you eager to get started? Do you wonder where you can find Rhus radicans growing?
Areas in full to partial sun are favored by poison ivy, and it is opportunistic about setting up shop where humans have disturbed the soil. You're more likely to encounter it growing at the edge of the forest than in the deep woods. Speaking of edges, it also frequents roadsides. Thanks to those aerial roots, it can be found scaling rock, concrete, brick, etc., as well as trees. This picture of poison ivy climbing a clapboard house wall -- and the damage it inflicted on said wall -- shows the necessity of getting rid of poison ivy if any is growing on your property.