Many of us are spending more time outdoors this summer. Perhaps some of that time has been spent exploring natural areas for hiking, bicycling, or fishing. You may encounter vines growing alongside trails and stream banks during outdoor excursions.
How can you determine if these vines are the notorious poison ivy or the innocuous Virginia creeper?
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) may look similar at first glance. The most apparent distinction is that the Virginia creeper, a native perennial vine, possesses leaves consisting of five leaflets. These leaflets have a toothed edge and are consistent in form. Virginia creeper climbs or trails on the ground using tendrils with adhesive sucker discs that allow the tendril to adhere to surfaces. On the surface, it forms a ground cover about a foot high. After producing small, greenish flowers in late spring, the Virginia creeper bears small, dark blue berries that reflect its membership in the grape family. These fruits have food value for wildlife and birds.
Virginia creeper can grow on trellises, arbors, or chain link fences and cover tree stumps, rock piles, or other eyesores. Its leaves become a brilliant red color in autumn and can be a fabulous addition to your landscape. However, Virginia creeper can be aggressive, so plant it where you can manage its spread.
Poison ivy grows along open edges of many habitats, including wooded areas, fields, thickets, fence rows, trails, and disturbed areas. Poison ivy often grows as a vine. However, this native perennial plant may appear as a small shrub, a single-stem plant, or a clump of plants. As a vine, poison ivy climbs with visibly hairy, fuzzy aerial roots as anchors. It is easy to overlook the tiny white flowers that appear in late spring. Birds regularly feed on the clusters of white berries formed in early autumn.
Three leaflets make up each leaf. The middle leaflet may be slightly longer than the others. Beyond the three leaflets, poison ivy leaves are highly variable in form. The leaves can be shiny or dull, hairy or sleek, with smooth, wavy, or coarsely-notched edges. New leaf growth in the spring is generally reddish. As the leaves mature, they become larger and dark green. In autumn, the leaves turn red, yellow, and orange.
Urushiol is the oil within the poison ivy’s sap that causes an allergic reaction. All parts of the plant, leaves, stems, flowers, fruits, and especially the roots contain urushiol. All portions of this plant remain poisonous even after the plant is dead. Many people are not allergic to poison ivy on their first encounter. However, after repeated exposures, they develop an adverse reaction.
If you believe your skin has been exposed to poison ivy, wash immediately with warm water, an oil-cutting soap, and a washcloth. For itch relief, use calamine lotion or steroid cream on the rash. It can take up to two weeks for the inflammation to heal. For severe cases of rash or fluid-filled blisters, contact a health professional.
Usually, we cannot see or feel the urushiol oil that causes the poison ivy rash. Animal fur, tools, clothing, and shoes can all transfer urushiol to your skin. Because of this, it is best to wear work gloves, protective eyewear, long sleeves, long pants with socks, and substantial shoes such as work boots when clearing leaves, branches, or plants. Before returning to the main living area of your house, remove gloves, shoes, and outer clothing. Wash clothes in hot water with a strong degreasing laundry detergent. Clean tools after use with soap and water and then 70% alcohol before using again.
Unlike humans, many wildlife species are not allergic to poison ivy. Many birds rely on the poison ivy berries for food in fall and winter. Manage poison ivy growing on your property where it is likely to contact you, family members, or pets. If you are trying to remove a large patch of poison ivy from a hillside, you may decide to rent a goat or two to eat it as they love this plant! Otherwise, there are mechanical and chemical methods of control.
If the ground is loose because of recent rain, you may be able to pull up the plant by its roots. Place your gloved hand in a heavy-duty plastic bag, remove the poison ivy, and pull the bag over the plant. Dispose of poison ivy in bags in the trash. Do not compost poison ivy plant material. Never burn the cuttings of poison ivy because the smoke will contain urushiol and may affect the lungs or eyes. Do not use a motorized weed trimmer to cut off poison ivy because the forceful trimming spreads the oil to your clothing, boots, and exposed skin. Children and pets should not be nearby when removing patches of poison ivy.
Purchase herbicides targeting poison ivy at a local nursery or farm store. Be sure to read the label, follow directions, and wear protective clothing and face covering when applying these products. There is no guarantee that removal and treatment will completely banish the plant. Poison ivy propagates through both seeds and rhizomes. Additional herbicide applications may be necessary to control root systems that run beneath the soil. If the plant is large, it probably has an extensive root system, and more plants will grow in the future. Controlling a widespread patch of poison ivy can be a multi-year task requiring regular treatment.
Poison ivy and Virginia creeper do offer food and beauty to the environment. To remember and distinguish between poison ivy and Virginia creeper, remember this: “Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive!”