Monday, June 3, 2013

Leaves of Three... Revisited

One of the interesting things about writing a blog (at least to me) is to see how people ended up finding your blog when there is an entire World Wide Web out there.  One thing that I have noticed is that I can tell what flowers are blooming by the web searches that lead people to this blog.  In April it was Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).  Then it was Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) and Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) - there are still a lot of people looking for information on Canada Anemone.  Right now a number of people are searching the internet for information on the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum).  At least one person wants to know how to get rid of Wild Geranium.  Why would anyone want to get rid of Wild Geranium?  It's a perfectly beautiful wildflower that minds its manners very well.

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.

 First let's take a look at Poison Ivy.  Because this is a young plant I cannot tell if it is the Eastern or Western species, but my bet would be on the Eastern form. 

Several small Poison Ivy leaves - less than 3 inches tall

The leaves of Poison Ivy are lobed in three partsAlways.  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

Mature plants often can be found with pale greenish white flowers in late spring or even remaining berries from the past year.  The berries are very small (maybe 1/10 inch in diameter) and hang in a grape-like cluster.  The berries are white.

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.
Now let's examine a plant that is one of the most common plants to confuse with Poison Ivy.  Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a climbing vine just like the Easter Poison Ivy.  Its leaves also appear to be glossy.  They are often found in the same shade of green as Poison Ivy.  The stems and vines are often red colored.

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.


  1. This helped me very much I have a Virgina Creeper in my backyard (now I know) Most of the leafs were in 5's but then some had 3 but now I can see the difference in the shapes. You are a god! LOL Thank you so much! I will never be confused again!

  2. I am glad that I was able to help. It seems that there are lot of people with the same confusion.

  3. Thank you for the clear photos and explanations! The information you provided clarified questions that I did not even know I had. The time you spent will really help my garden!

  4. Regarding the info. you provided on wild strawberry: I gather that you're referring to real strawberry plant that happens to be wild...rather than the small leafed wild strawberry weed (which only makes pure yellow flowers before the tiny red "strawberries" I have read and observed).

    1. Yes, I was specifically referring to Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Virginia)or Woodland Strawberry (F. vesca). The Indian Strawberry (Potentilla indica) also has three leaflets, but like you said has yellow flowers, as does the Barren Strawberry (Geum fragarioides) which lacks the red fruit.

  5. got it right...they do grow together and if you can identify them it is a great help....was not sure about Virginia creeper, been growing around my property for years and only attaches itself out back in the clearing between wood and yard!