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Foraging: Identifying poison ivy.

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(glossy, medium green, mostly smooth with few lobes)

One of the most most important plants for people to be able to identify, whether foraging or just playing outside, is poison ivy. The ability to quickly  spot the plant is something that comes in handy for me nearly every day as I’m doing yardwork, enjoying the outdoors or foraging. While I am not allergic, a number of people that I know are. I strive to eradicate the plant from my yard so that I know there is a lowered risk for my friends when they come over. Severe allergic reactions are frightening, and not everyone knows how their bodies react to certain allergens until they have been accidentally exposed.

I suggest that everyone, allergic or not…


To start finding poison ivy, think back to the basic rhyme so many of us learned in childhood: Leaves of three, let it be.

Count the number of leaves in each grouping. 1, 2, 3.

(matte, medium green with red stems, lobed – with mirrored pattern of lobes on the side leaves)

Once you have counting to 3 down, move on to familiarizing yourself with the many “faces” poison ivy can present. It’s probably easiest, and least risky, to start seated comfortably at your computer.

Here is a link, complete with a quiz, that you might find helpful.

When you venture outside, take those mental images with you and try to spot poison ivy in each new environment you enter. If you’re in the woods or in an unkempt urban or suburban environment, you’re likely to find it rather quickly. I have made it a habit to always be looking for poison ivy when I’m outside. The longer I’ve had the habit in my life, the easier I find it to spot the creeping vine.

In my experience, poison ivy can be glossy and dark green, or it can be matte and lighter green. The leaf edges can be smooth, serrated or lobed/notched. It forms in bushes and vines, climbing up or creeping out. The vines are characteristically hairy along the entire length of the vine, particularly when the plant is mature. It loves to climb up trees and, the urban equivalent, telephone/power poles. I’ve found it in Franklinton in nearly every yard I’ve been in, in one of our raised garden beds, climbing telephone poles that are in the middle of a sidewalk, up fences on abandoned lots, across the sidewalk in our side yard, and growing out of the siding below a second story window sill on a neighbor’s house. Young plants can have tiny leaves. In the spring, when the foliage is green and it blends in with everything else that is starting to green, it’s harder to spot than when autumn comes and the leaves blaze red.

If you find poison ivy in your yard and want to dispose of it, the only way that is truly safe is to bag it up and throw it out. Burning is the worst option, as the oils, which are the cause of people’s allergic reaction, will be dispersed through the air, getting on exposed skin and even in airways. Serious stuff.

If you encounter poison ivy while out foraging, first assess whether you’ve been exposed. If not, just avoid the plant and continue foraging. If you have been exposed, get to water and wash your skin with soap and cool water. Hot water will open your pores, allowing the oils from the plant to be absorbed more readily. If you’re highly allergic, contact with exposed clothing can even cause a rash. Some people still have trouble with exposed clothing after it has been washed.

The incentive to avoid poison ivy is a potentially large one, so, please, get to know it.




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