How to Identify + Treat Poison Ivy

Wondering how to identify and treat poison ivy? You’re not alone! Here are some helpful tips!

My gardening skills are subpar, at best. When we moved into our house, we were blessed with beautifully organized and manicured gardens. Now, it's a bit overgrown with who-knows-what growing in between. And it's the who-knows-whats that scare me. Not just because there could be weeds or invasive plants, which there are. But also lurking: poison ivy. The mosquitoes torture us enough—the last thing my family needs is another excuse to itch.

Since my plant identification knowledge is at the same level as my gardening, I turned to Tia Pinney, Drumlin Farm's teacher naturalist extraordinaire, to offer some guidance.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

The old saying still holds true, especially for any low growing plants or vines: "Leaves of three, let it be." Poison ivy leaf size, color, and shininess can vary significantly depending on amount of sun and season:

  • Sunny leaves are relatively small and very shiny with a reddish color on new growth.

  • Shade leaves have no red, no shine, and can be quite large.

  • Leaves can be a smooth oval or can have a few irregular indentations.

  • Leaves are never "toothed" nor are they fuzzy or prickly.

  • Poison ivy vines that grow up trees are extremely "hairy" and large. They can grow up to 2-3 inches in diameter, but usually start much smaller.

How to Treat Poison Ivy

The best response to poison ivy exposure is to wash it off, and the sooner the better! Even if you don't wash it off within minutes, a thorough dousing is necessary at any point to remove remaining oil. Soap and water will usually do the trick; rubbing alcohol is also good as it can dissolve the oil. Some folks swear by a product called Tecnu, which is good to have handy on outdoor adventures when soap and water are not within reach.

Don't forget to thoroughly clean all clothes, gear, and footwear that have been exposed. The oil found on poison ivy is very stable and can remain for months, if not years, on anything it touches.

Contrary to popular belief, the rash one gets from poison ivy is not contagious and scratching will not make it spread. The "spreading" is more likely due to varying levels of exposure or re-exposure by coming into contact with clothing, backpacks, gloves, etc. that were not thoroughly cleaned.

What’s Good About Poison Ivy

It's hard to imagine that a plant that can provoke such terror has a plus side, but from a nature perspective, poison ivy has some benefits. It provides good ground cover and produces the most nutritious berry around. In fact, the berries are eaten so quickly by birds and mammals that you almost never see them. Not that any of us will be growing it anytime soon—well, at least not intentionally!

How to identify and treat poison ivy

How to identify and treat poison ivy