Finding poison ivy in your yard can lead to a painful rash and a newfound suspicion of plants. However, not all ivy is poison ivy, so here are a few tips to help you sort out what’s harmless and what you should avoid touching.
The most obvious sign is the leaves. Most types of ordinary ivy have three- or five-pointed leaves, and some ornamental ivy has white or light green patches along the edge of the darker green leaves. Poison ivy leaves are wider and grow in flat bunches of three leaflets. In many varieties, the center of the three leaflets is longer than the other two, and the leaves have one or more little points, often in irregular places on the edge of the leaf. Poison ivy never has more than three leaves on a single stem, so if you can see more, you’re looking at some other plant–around here, it’s likely to be Virginia creeper. The plants do sometimes lose leaves, so you might find a few stems with just two leaves, but most of the stems will have three.
The stems themselves are also helpful. Poison ivy usually has slightly fuzzy or almost smooth stems, although when it is climbing something, it may have darker, hairy stems. Some stems are woody, and some are reddish or green. Poison ivy never has thorns. Regular ivy plants, when they climb, have adhesive pads on smooth stems or produce rows of tiny roots on just one side of the stem.
If your mystery plant has berries, check the color. Poison ivy has small, grey or white berries which usually appear during the spring, though some don’t show up until August. Regardless, the plants keep their berries until mid to late winter. Other varieties of ivy produce reddish or dark purple berries much later in the year: ivy usually flowers in the fall and only grows berries in the winter. Some birds and other animals can eat poison ivy berries as well as the berries from harmless ivies, so don’t assume the plant is safe based on the wildlife.