More than once, first time visitors to the Ranch ask why poison ivy is allowed to climb the small oak tree along the front door walkway. I’ve sort of gotten used to it and have developed a rather nice little speech about the virtues of the innocent five-leaved Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia L. Planchon) Almost every part of the vine is eaten by something at different times of the year — the leaves and stems are eaten by deer until fall when they switch to eating the fruit; the fruit is also eaten by a variety of birds, including bob white quail. Not to be left out, squirrels and turkey also find it tasty. Turkey prefer the young tendrils while the squirrels like the leaves and fruit and in the winter, chew on its bark. With such popularity it’s sort of amazing it is doing so well. But perhaps if it was not such a good wildlife food, it would be a troublesome vine. In the fall, it adds to the autumn colors by turning a beautiful red. So there is no reason to willy-nilly rip out or kill Virginia Creeper — its one of the good guys. Five leaves.
Now, back to poison ivy (Toxicodenndron radicans L Kuntze). It has three leaves, not five. But that means it can be easily confused with Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica Aiton) — another great wildlife food. Birds, raccoons, opossums, chipmunks and deer eat the fruit, while rabbits eat the bark during hard winters. Those three leaves are definitely different while being definitely similar. For years I’ve avoided fragrant sumac out of ignorance. Now however, I’ve gotten good at telling the difference between Fragrant sumac and poison ivy. I’m still cautious, being careful to keep a distance until I know for sure I’ve identified it correctly.
So how to tell the difference? The middle leaf. The stem of the middle leaf of the poison ivy is long. The stem of the Fragrant sumac is very short. Poison ivy will creep along the ground, climb up trees and other objects and sometimes just stand upright, two or more feet off the ground. Fragrant sumac does not creep along the ground or climb objects, it only stands upright, about two or three feet off the ground. Another difference is in the fruit. Poison ivy has white berries, Fragrant sumac has red berries. But the berries are not always present. So always check the center leaf.
If in doubt, don’t touch it. Err on the side of caution. All parts of the poison ivy plant can cause irritation, roots, stems, leaves, berries, all. And don’t burn it. Its smoke, if inhaled, it can affect the lungs. What to do about it? If it is around your house or areas where people frequent, it needs to be removed either chemically or by hand pulling. Cutting it with weeders or mowers doesn’t work, it only scatters pieces of the plant, spreading it even further.
Poison ivy does have some virtues, if growing wild. Like Virginia Creeper and Fragrant Sumac, it is a great wildlife food for a variety of animals. And it too, is beautiful in the fall.
Now that the weather is great for hiking and other outdoor activities, stay alert. What do you plan to sit on? Walk through? Brush up against?