Let’s be honest! Poisonous plants are party poopers! They can turn a fun camping trip into a living nightmare faster than a knife fight in a phone booth. They are like the bully of the plant world. And (gulp!) they are all around us. Even in our own backyard! Yikes! I’m itching just thinking about it! But before you head out into your yard in a hazmat suit to rake the leaves or, worse yet, limit your outdoor fun to the front porch, arm yourself with some helpful information about these plants so that you can do your best to avoid them.
There are two main types of Poison Ivy—Eastern and Western Poison Ivy. And between the two of them, they can be found in about 48 of the 50 United States. Eastern Poison Ivy grows in the central states and spreads all the way to the East Coast. It can grow as a shrub, ground cover, or climb up objects, such as trees, utility poles, and fences. Western Poison Ivy mainly grows from the central states and spreads out west, but it has been found in some Midwestern and East Coast states too, such as Wisconsin, Illinois, South Carolina, and New York. Since it only grows as a ground vine, it isn’t as problematic as Eastern Poison Ivy. These plants are hard to tell apart, but both cause the same excruciatingly itchy rash that you want to avoid at all costs.
Identifying Poison Ivy isn’t always easy! Depending on the season, the leaves can be green, orange, or even a dark reddish-purple. You might see it as a vine climbing a tree or as a shrub in the woods. It may or may not have green berries that turn white in the early fall. But there are a few characteristics you can count on to help you identify what IS and IS NOT Poison Ivy:
- Poison Ivy always has leaves of three, never more.
- Poison Ivy leaves are always smooth and non-serrated. They never have thorns. There may be reddish hairs on the stem or vine.
- The leaves always grow on the left side of the stem first, then to the right.
Poison Oak, which has made the wooded coastline of the Pacific Ocean its home, grows as a shrub, ground cover, and a vine. In comparison to a Poison Ivy leaf, the color of a Poison Oak leaf is usually a duller green, but it can change with the seasons, so it may have a reddish hue in the fall. To spot Poison Oak, look for these consistent characteristics:
- Poison Oak ALMOST ALWAYS has a cluster of three leaves, but it HAS been spotted with more than three leaves (sigh!).
- The leaves are lobed or notched, not smooth around the edges like Poison Ivy. The shape is similar to oak leaves.
- Poison Oak leaves have tiny hairs on both sides.
Poison Sumac is related to Poison Ivy and Poison Oak, but not to the Sumac family of plants (confusing!). It is found mainly along the East Coast and only in very wet areas, such as in bogs and swamps. It grows as a thin, small tree or shrub and can be up to 20 feet tall. Poison Sumac has these telltale characteristics:
- Poison Sumac typically has between 7-13 leaves on each stem, so it doesn’t follow the “Leaves of three, let it be!” rule of the other two poisonous plants.
- Its leaves are smooth-edged, eye-shaped, and grow from red stems. Sometimes the leaves have black spots on them that are filled with Urushiol, the poisonous culprit.
- In the fall the leaves turn shades of red, yellow, and pink. There are often tiny yellow berries on the plant as well.
Despite the differences between the plants, they all pack a big wallop with their toxic Urushiol liquid, and so they should be avoided like the plague. This clear liquid is what reeks havoc when people come into contact with one of these plants. The liquid can be found on all parts of the plant and can stay active on something, such as on gardening equipment or your beloved pet, for years if not washed off thoroughly! Contact with these plants results in skin inflammation and redness, very severe itching, and possibly blisters.
If you brush up against one of these poisonous plants, you should do the following:
- Rinse your skin with warm, soapy water.
- Wash your clothes at least once, maybe twice (or throw them away if you don’t care about them).
- Wash everything with warm soapy water that may have also touched the plant (lawn equipment, outdoor toys, your pet, etc.).
- As impossible as this sounds, do not itch! Itching can cause an infection!
- Take a lukewarm bath in a prepared oatmeal solution (from the drugstore) or pour baking soda (1 cup) into running water.
- Calamine and hydrocortisone creams/lotions can help with itching.
- Apply a cool compress to the area.
- Antihistamine pills can help with itching, but only take them internally. Never rub the pill on your affected skin.
When you head out into the woods or even into your own backyard, wear long pants, high socks, and closed shoes to avoid skin contact with plants that may prove to be poisonous. A good rule of thumb is to stay away from any three-leaved plant or one with white berries. Remember these sayings and you could save yourself from a world of hurt:
“Leaves of three, let it be!”
“Berries of white, poisonous sight!”
“Hairy vine, no friend of mine!”