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The Best Ways To Spot Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

The Best Ways To Spot Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Poison ivy. Image source:


Poisonous plants are some of the worst things you can find when hiking or working in your yard.  If you are like me, though, chances are you’re totally unaware of their presence until long after it is too late.

The three main ones to watch out for are poison oak, ivy, and sumac. These are the ones that contain urushiol — the nasty stuff that causes people to break out in itchy, oozing blisters. These plants can grow just about anywhere and can survive some exceptionally harsh conditions, making your ability to identify and either avoid or eradicate them especially important.

Poison Ivy

If I were to term a single plant as a life-long nemesis, it would be poison ivy. I first learned of its existence after developing a sizable rash on my face after attending a picnic in grade school. From that point, my total number of encounters with this plant has been both numerous and highly unpleasant.

So how do you know this plant when you see it? It helps to use the standard rule of three. “Leaves of three, let it be.” (This is a good one to follow in general for all plants, honestly.) If you live in an area where poison ivy may reside, namely anyplace with adequate water and sun, then you should be on the lookout for any plants that seem to creep on the ground. Poison ivy can also be found as a bush in some areas of the country.

If you should encounter a three-leaved plant, look at the color of the leaves. Poison ivy has shiny green leaves in the summer and yellow/red leaves in fall. In springtime, its flowers can be yellow or green and the resulting berries are often a greyish/white color.

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One of the key identifiers of poison ivy is the shape of the leaves. While these leaves are found in clusters of three and are pointed in nature, they often have a distinctive bladed edge down only one side of the plant. This feature, above all else, may help you to avoid this dreaded plant should you share the same allergy as most people. Be aware that wild strawberries also share this characteristic, although they have a bladed edge on both sides of the leaf as opposed to only one.

Poison Oak

The Best Ways To Spot Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Poison oak. Image source:

A newcomer to my life is poison oak.  I was “lucky” enough to discover this little beauty recently while doing some work in a hedgerow near my home. However, unlike my many unsuccessful attempts at avoiding poison ivy, I was successfully able to avoid this plant! Fortunately, a neighbor reported it to me on his property, telling me that I should be on the lookout near my own home.

Given my already discussed history of allergic reactions to poison ivy, I generally tend to avoid any plant with three leaves. The distinct difference between poison ivy and poison oak is that the leaves of poison oak are generally rounded and have what is referred to as scalloped edges. The best way to understand a scalloped edge is to think of it like a wave or a series of clusters along the outer edges of the leaves.  If you are familiar with an oak leaf, know that the leaves of poison oak are somewhat similar.

Poison oak can grow as either a vine or as a bush. The color of the leaves can vary slightly, but they are primarily yellow or green in the summer and change to a reddish hue during the fall months.

Poison Sumac

The final poisonous plant we should know about is the much taller poison sumac. This is one of the hardest to identify, given the wide variety of sumac plants that can be found in the wild. There are some key features that help this plant to stand out from its relatives that you should know.

One of the easiest ways to find a poison sumac plant is to look up. The plant doesn’t have the same tendency as the previous two to grow as a vine, and will instead look more like an established, though fast-growing, tree. In fact, these plants can grow anywhere from 9-20 feet in height at maturity.

Apart from the obvious height of the plant, some other features can help it to stand out from the rest. For one, it generally grows in wetter areas and can survive even if its roots and base are completely submerged in water.

The Best Ways To Spot Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Poison sumac. Image source: Wikimedia

Another characteristic that could help you to distinguish this plant from the rest is its stem and leaves. A poison sumac plant has clusters of leaves in varying patterns that are smooth and pointed at both ends. A poison sumac plant will never have jagged edges on its leaves. The stems of this plant also have a distinctive red hue leading down to the trunk of the tree.

The berries of the poison sumac stand out from other sumac plants in that they are either white or a pale green, as opposed to varying shades of red. Their berries look like clusters of grapes and form at the base of the plant’s stems.

Final Thoughts

So what should you do if you find some of this stuff in your near vicinity? Stay away from it unless you are properly dressed to be around it or one of the fortunate few who isn’t allergic to the oil. If you have a severe allergy, like myself, you may want to enlist the help of someone who doesn’t react as strongly as you to help out.

Remember that even if you spray these plants with a herbicide and salt the ground after, you can still have problems if you handle them. Everything from the leaves to the stems to the very roots contain urushiol oil, so be careful.

And what if you are exposed? You should immediately wash the oils off your skin and launder all your clothing on its own to avoid spreading the oil further. There are special soaps available to help rid your skin of the oil, or you can use rubbing alcohol to help further sterilize your skin.

Depending on the severity of your reaction, you can seek an over-the-counter medication or speak with your doctor about a stronger course of action. I personally seek out my doctor every time I come into contact with urushiol oil due to my limited success using the OTC stuff.

No matter what you do, if you find it or suspect you’ve found it, be careful. Proper identification of these plants can help you to determine what to do next and avoid an unpleasant surprise.

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