Poison Ivy: How to Identify It, What to do About It

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I've learned a lot about many types of plants during the course of my career. Rhodhodendrons, spirea, boxwood. . .I see these all the time when I visit homes and do maintenance work.  But there's one plant I didn't anticipate learning quite so much about: poison ivy.  It's a plant I run into more often than I like, working in my little corner of the Northeastern United States.

To be very upfront with you: sometimes I still have trouble identifying poison ivy.  It isn’t that I can’t spot “leaves of three,” it’s just that there are an awful lot of plants that look like it!

I figured if I have so much trouble identifying poison ivy, maybe you do too!   So, here’s what I've learned about poison ivy, what it looks like at different stages of its life, what grows around it, and some ways to prevent and treat it. 

Poison Ivy Throughout The Year

The first thing I learned is that poison ivy looks different depending on time of year.  This picture from Camping with Gus illustrates that well!

In Spring, Summer, and Fall the size and color of the leaves change.   In the Spring, the leaves tend to be very shiny.  In the summer, they may sometimes look shiny (although in my experience they often do not!), in the Fall they change color, and in the Winter the plant produces a small, white berry.  The leaves look droopy, and they have a serrated (jagged) edge.

Growth Habit

Also be aware that you will see poison ivy growing up the sides of trees and buildings, but you may also see it growing directly from the ground.

Companion Plants

Maybe “companion plant” is a strange term to use, but I’ve found that there are two plants that commonly grow right alongside poison ivy.  Any time I see these plants, I’m immediately on the lookout for leaves of three, and, usually, I find it!

During one of my first jobs, my boss taught me about a plant called jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which not only grows near poison ivy, but can also treat it!


Jewelweed grows quite tall (up to 5ft), produces bright orange flowers near the end of summer, and (most importantly) has stems which are tubular and contain a clear, watery substance.  If you crush the stems and rub the sap on skin exposed to poison ivy, it will help prevent an outbreak, or soothe an existing one.

Virginia creeper also grows near poison ivy, at least where I live.  Many clients mistake it for poison ivy, because the leaves look very similar.  While both plants have a similar growth habit, Virginia creeper has five leaflets, one of its most distinctive differences.

Prevention and Treatment

Let’s say you’ve been exposed to poison ivy.  What should you do?

Your first priority should be washing the affected skin and carefully removing and cleaning any exposed clothing, tools, and gloves.  The oil from poison ivy can persist for quite a while, so if you wear clothing that has the oil on it, you can still get a rash.

For cleaning your skin, there are several options.  You can use Jewelweed, if it is growing nearby.  You can use a commercial treatment, such as Iverest (this is what I use).  Or, you can use soap and COOL water to clean the oil.  Whatever method you choose, do so as quickly as possible. You may be able to prevent a rash from forming.

If the reaction seems severe (more than just a little localized rash), visit the emergency room or your doctor.

Additional Notes

As someone who works with landscaped property, I would strongly recommend getting rid of any poison ivy as soon as you see it.  I witnessed poison ivy take over whole swaths of landscaping, to the point where the owner needed to spray to kill the ivy. . .also killing the other plants in her yard.  If you don’t eradicate poison ivy early on, you may lose a lot of landscaping in the end!

Finally, please be cautious when dealing with this plant.  I’m fortunate enough that the oil hardly affects me, but some co-workers have had to visit the emergency room, while others developed rashes that took months to heal.  If you’re not sure how you react to poison ivy, don’t take chances!  

Have any helpful tips (or horror stories) about poison ivy? Share in the comments! And if you like what you see, please share, tweet, +1. . . you get the idea!


Linda KelsoComment