Poison Ivy, What It Is and What It Isn’t!

When working in the garden or on the farm being able to positively identify poison ivy is very important. Who wants to end up with an itching spreading rash? There is the old adage “Leaves of three Let it be, leaves of five let it thrive” but that isn’t always clear. There are lots of plants that at first glance might be mistaken for poison ivy. In this post I’ve included some pictures of poison ivy and some of the other plants that people often mistake for poison ivy so it can help you in your garden or homestead!

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

Let’s get right into and look at what poison ivy looks like. In the picture below you will see poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) with the notorious leaves of three. Pay attention to poison ivy’s growth habit, it’s leave shape, and color.

poison ivy leaves of three
Poison Ivy, leaves of three!

Poison ivy will grow up trees but also in clumps on the forest floor. It produces berries with seeds that the birds will spread all over the place. If you don’t have poison ivy in your gardens now you could see it eventually! In the fall poison ivy turns a beautiful red color that would make it very attractive as an ornamental if it weren’t for that irritating itching it causes!

What Makes Poison Ivy So Bad?

Poison ivy has an oil in it called urushiol which is extremely irritating to skin. It can transfer over to you through the leaves, the stems, and even the dormant branches in the winter. Urushiol oil can also be found in other skin irritating plants like poison oak and poison sumac.

What Should You Do After Exposure to Poison Ivy?

The first step is to wash your hands in cold water. If you use warm water it causes the pores in your skin to open and allow the urushiol oil to enter deeper into your skin. Which makes the rash worse! Use cold water and a dish soap to cleans the areas you may have touched from the oil. Dish soap is formulated to break down oils and if you do that you will stop the rash from spreading further.

Wash all of your clothing as the oil can stay active on your clothing for up to 2 years!

poison ivy leaves of three

After the oil is removed proceed with treating the rash through calamine lotion, corticosteroid cream, or allergy medicines and of course consult your doctor! (Advice from the Mayo Clinic)

I’m very fortunate in that poison ivy has never bothered me but it’s not something I take chances with. If I have been exposed to it I clean and wash as if I am allergic to it. Allergies and tolerances can change over time and I really don’t want that poison ivy rash.

How Do You Remove Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy is one of the few plants where if it is in a cultivated area it can cause personal and accidental harm. In the wild it will be severely difficult to eliminate and completely eradicate so removal of poison ivy in your common cultivated areas is likely the best you can do. To remove poison ivy you can do it mechanically (pulling it out) or through chemical means.

Mechanically Removing Poison Ivy

Hand removal of poison ivy has risks of exposure also if leave a root it will come back. For a single small plant or two that just popped up go ahead and remove it by a gloved hand. I use a rubber glove that I can wash before taking off and putting away. For larger plants growing on trees or structures you may want to consider chemical treatments.

Chemically Treating Poison Ivy

Killing poison ivy is one of the few times I think it is OK to use a chemical herbicide. The important thing is to use the herbicide properly and follow the instructions provided. Protect yourself from the plant as well as from the chemical. This is important: if you are spraying the leaves do not remove any of the plant mechanically first. Leave the leaves so you can spray the spray them completely. The leaves are the way the chemical enters into the plant and gets taken down into the roots. Watch for the death of the plant but it may require a second treatment if new growth appears. If you kill the roots the rest of the plant will die.

If the poison ivy is near edibles or on prized ornamental plants be extremely cautious with using herbicides. The herbicides that will kill poison ivy are non-selective and will kill the wanted plants easier than they will kill poison ivy. In these cases I would go back to the mechanical means of removing the ivy.


While I have no experience with goats I have heard that goats are effective at removing poison ivy from wild areas. If you have had experience with this I would like to know more so post in the comments!

What Plants Look Like Poison Ivy?

Most people who have trouble identifying poison ivy see one of the following plants and assume it’s poison ivy. They have leaf structures that are similar but just because a plant has leaves of 3 doesn’t mean it has to be poison ivy!

Virginia Creeper

Virginia creeper is the “leaves of five let it thrive” part of the adage. It looks very similar to poison ivy and sometimes will have leaves of three in the newest foliage. They grow in the same areas and thrive in the same conditions and can be easily mistaken for one another. If you see leaves of three look toward the root of the plant and locate any possible leaves of five. If there are five it isn’t poison ivy.

Virginia creeper
Virginia creeper

The leaves also have a more jagged serration than the poison ivy and seem to be thicker and larger on the more mature leaves. I’ve also notice that poison ivy leaves tend to have a “weeping” or “drooping” pattern when hanging off the vine. Virginia creeper tends to be more upright.

Virginia creeper
Virginia Creeper with only 3 leaves!

Wild Blackberry

Wild blackberry actually is mistaken quite often for poison ivy. I see people all the time on social media asking for identification “is this poison ivy?” when it is only a blackberry bramble. They both have leaves of three but poison ivy will not have the thorns that the blackberry plants do. Just look on the blackberry stems and see if there are little thorny structures on the stems for a positive ID on blackberries.

Blackberry “leaves of three” but not poison ivy!

Box Elder Trees

Believe it or not often a tree can be mistake for poison ivy! The box elder tree (Acer negundo) has severely dissected leaves that look like leaves of three. If you notice in the botanical name the genus is Acer which is a maple genus. Box elders are a very weedy tree that I pull from my gardens all the time as saplings. When they are young and very small they can resemble poison ivy emerging from the soil.

Box elder grows quickly and can be 4 to 6 feet tall in a few months. As it grows straight and tall you can easily tell that it isn’t poison ivy. Box elder isn’t a vine and the leaves do actually look different from poison ivy. Once you learn what it looks like you will easily be able to identify it.

Is Box Elder Good for Anything?

Not much…but a few things! It’s a very softwood and for beginning wood carving projects is can be useful. As it is related to maples it can be tapped for syrup but the sugar content will not be what you would get out of a sugar maple. With a sugar maple you would need about 2/3’s the same amount of syrup as you would from box elders to make the same amount of syrup!

Box elder tree

In my garden box elder is extremely weedy so I don’t recommend cultivating it and would rather choose another nice maple tree.

I hope this post helps to alleviate some confusion on the identity of poison ivy. I strongly encourage you to learn more about the invasive weeds that come to your garden and find a targeted approach to removing them when needed.