Right now it seems that a large number of people are confused about how to identify Poison Ivy, especially when comparing it to Wild Strawberry (of all things) and Virginia Creeper. There is a lot that can be confusing about poison ivy. There are two species of Poison Ivy that can both take multiple forms. Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) is a short groundcover of about six inches that can also grow into a short shrub of 1 to 4 foot tall. Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a climbing vine, but it also can spend the early part of its life as a low groundcover.
|Several small Poison Ivy leaves - less than 3 inches tall|
The leaves of Poison Ivy are lobed in three parts. Always. If there are more or less lobes it is not Poison Ivy. The edges of the leaves are either smooth or have a few coarse teeth. The veins in the leaves are usually a lighter shade of green, but sometimes have a reddish tint. The stems also often have a reddish tint.
The tip of each leaflets comes to a well-defined point that is much longer than the nearby teeth.
The leaves of Poison Ivy look glossy - they look like they have been shined or a coating has been applied to them. The tops of the leaves are usually a bright shade of green. The undersides of the leaves are paler.
|The underside of a Poison Ivy leaf|
|Closeup of the underside of the leaf - note the well defined point to the leaflet|
|Poison Ivy acting as a groundcover|
Next lets look at a vine form - meaning it has to be Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). This vine can be only a few millimeters thick to several inches thick.
|Eastern Poison Ivy - note the glossy leaves with reddish veins and a few coarse teeth|
Poison Ivy vines often appear be hairy - especially as they age. The picture below shows a good example of this on a wrist-thick vine.
|Note the different sizes of vines. The one on the left is wrist thick, the one on the right barely the thickness of a pencil.|
There are several things that distinguish Virginia Creeper. If you can find the berries on the plant they will be purple and look like small grapes - about 1/4 inch in diameter. (Do not eat the berries - they are toxic)
The leaves have many coarse serrations - more than the typical poison ivy. The leaflets on the Virginia Creeper are typically widest pat their midpoint while Poison Ivy leaflets are wider closer to the stem. Mature Virginia Creeper leaves do not typically come to a long point. Mature leaves are typically a darker shade of green than Poison ivy - the undersides are paler than the top surfaces.
Most importantly, most Virginia Creeper leaves have five lobes. There are of course exceptions to this rule - it is sometimes found with three or seven lobes, but the general rule is that it has five lobes.
|The top of a Virginia Creeper leaf - note the reddish stem and five lobes|
|The underside of a Virginia Creeper leaf|
Finally, because lots of people seem confused let's take a look at the Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana). The Wild Strawberry has lobed leaves with three leaflets, but that is really where the similarity to Poison Ivy ends.
The leaflets are coarsely serrated around almost the entire margin. The terminal tooth is often shorter than the two teeth to either side, giving the end of the leaf a notched appearance. The leaflets are thickest either at or beyond the midpoint.
The color of the leaves varies from light to dark green, with the undersides being a lighter shade. The leaves and stems are covered with downy "hairs" that give the plant a fuzzy appearance.
The Wild Strawberry does send out runners that will start new plants some distance from the parent plant, but these runners do not climb like the vines of Poison Ivy or Virginia Creeper.
|Wild Strawberry leaves - note the three leaflets, serrated margins|
|Note varying color of leaflets|
|Note the fuzzy look of the leaves|
|Underside of the Wild Strawberry leaf|
There is one really easy way to identify Wild Strawberry. If you can see either the flowers (white with yellow centers) or the bright red fruit its identity becomes obvious.
Now to look a couple of confusing situations. Sometimes you find Virgina Creeper and Poison Ivy growing right nest to each other - even on the same tree. Just remember the rules. If it has five leaflets, it's Virginia Creeper. If it has three glossy leaflets with a smooth or coarsely margins (and a finely pointed tip), it is (probably) Poison Ivy.
|There are four Virginia Creeper leaves (five-leaflets) just to the right of center. The rest of the leaves (three-leaflets) are Poison Ivy. Most of the Poison Ivy leaves have reddish veins.|
|Virginia Creeper in the foreground and on the tree. Poison Ivy to the left and right.|