Saturday, August 30, 2014

Poison Ivy Vines

I get a lot of emails from folks asking me to identify whether their plant in question is poison ivy.  If the plant is attaching itself to something, one of the things I look for is how it is attaching and what the attaching mechanism looks like.

Poison ivy attaches itself with dark, hair like aerial roots that may have a slight reddish cast:

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Before it gets to that state, though, the hairs start off small. The following is of my test plant. It is starting to send out vines and therefore is growing these roots. From a distance, they look like hair. Close up, they look like small, woody pieces.

This is another test plant I had a few years ago that started to do the same thing. Notice how there are some roots that really look like hairs and some that look soft:

By using these roots, the plant can attach itself to fences, telephone poles, trees, or just about anything else the plant feels like climbing. 

Why does poison ivy climb? According to Smithsonian Science:

"What triggers a poison ivy plant to climb is a mystery. Some poison ivy plants climb right away from seedlings and others do not. Individual populations of these plants often contain a mix of climbing and non-climbing plants."

When the vines get old enough or thick enough, they can cover an entire tree trunk. Unlike some other plants that can kill the host tree, such as the strangler fig, these vines rarely cause a problem. They can grow to the height of a the tree and even look like the tree.

These vines, no matter how big or small, all contain the same oil that causes the rash, so DO NOT TOUCH.  When fall comes and the plant starts to die back, the oil is pulled from the leaves back into the vines and roots, which means these are not safe to handle or touch at any point.

There are many of these vines where I work. When our crew encounters them, they cut a 6-8 inch piece out of them. This will cause the plant at the top of the vine to die, but it can take a while. They generally just leave the bottom part and it rarely grows back.

That being said, if you choose to remove a large vine, be careful. Clean your tools completely when finished. I have read that extremely small droplets of urushiol oil can spray out when cutting a vine or breaking a root, so clean yourself, your clothes, and your shoes.

The best advice is to get rid of the plant before it starts climbing. However, since the plant often grows mixed well with others, it can be hard to tell what it's up to until it's climbing.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cats and Poison Ivy

This is my cat, Ram (short for “Ramachandra”, pronounced “rom” as in CD-Rom). He is a rescue cat – someone dumped him off at my property in subzero February weather.  No shelters in town would take him, so cat #4 joined the family.

However, Ram is a holy terror. So much so, in fact, that he lives in the garage. If I leave him in the house unsupervised, he does more damage than an F5 tornado. Thankfully, he loves the garage, probably because there are mice.

He also likes limited outdoor activities. We have coyotes in the area, so he’s not allowed to live outside, but he does run out whenever open the garage opens. He makes his way into the front yard and does cat stuff like climbing trees and rolling in catnip.

What does this have to do with poison ivy, you ask? Well, about a week ago, Ram got out and ran up the tree my test poison ivy plant lives under. When he came down, he came dangerously close to my plant. So, I moved the plant to a location that was likely not going to be interesting to him… the unused half of the driveway.

As luck would have it, Ram got out again a few days later. I went to get the mail, turned around, and – you guessed it – Ram was showing extreme interest in the poison ivy plant. He looked like he was rubbing his face against it. It was dark, so I am not 100% he rubbed it, but it sure looked like he did.

Now, Ram did not and will not have any issues. Cats do not have the same allergic reaction that people do to the urushiol oil in poison ivy. But, I knew that if he did rub it and then rubbed me, I’d have the oil on me and I’d get poison ivy. You see, animals such as dogs and cats will get the Urushiol oil on their fur when they come in contact with the plant and the oil can transfer easily to anything it touches, including furniture, beds, carpet, your hands when you pet the animal, etc.  The oil also stays active for a long time, so it’s not like it will become ineffective soon. This is how people who never go anywhere outside get poison ivy: they touch an object or pet that has come in contact with the plant.

I wasn’t 100% sure what to do, so, I called a vet, who assured me that the cat would not react. Her advise? Dry-rub the cat and then bathe him.

Dry rubbing was good. I used old towels in the garage and vigorously rubbed Ram down. He loved it and stood there purring. He even was ok with me wiping his face a number of times. He seemed to really love the attention.

As for her second piece of advice… wash a cat? Really? I thought to myself - have you ever done this without the cat being tranquilized? Don’t you think the phrase “madder than a wet cat” comes from someplace? In fact, I HAVE washed a cat and have scars to prove it. Cats do not like to be wet, and copious amounts of water are necessary to get the oil diluted to a point that it becomes harmless.

But, I also knew I was not OK with oil all over God only knows where in my house or garage, so I got the bathroom ready. I have one of those flexible shower sprayers and planned to use that. I turned the water on and got it to a decent temperature.

I knew immediately that Ram wasn’t going to go for it. I no sooner closed the bathroom door and started to move him towards the tub that he went completely ballistic. Sounds started coming out of that cat that I didn’t know cats could make. Seriously, I should have filmed this. It was like the exorcist on steroids. He started biting and clawing and I knew there was no way washing this animal was going to happen. Washing the cat could prove more deadly than a rash. So, I let Ram out of the bathroom washed myself instead.

Fast forward 2 days. I have this suspicious set of red spots on my arm that look like I might have scraped myself on something or it could be the start of a rash. It’s been a long time since I have had a rash, so I will have to wait and see. I  also remind myself that I was mowing this morning and had a close encounter with a tree, so that might also be the source of my red area.

I guess I just have to wait. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to see if the homeopathic remedy Rhus Tox really works. I’ll let you know. In the mean time, the plant has been moved to the unused firepit in the back yard - no where near Ram's tromping grounds.

Update 8/30: I did not have a reaction, so either the cat didn't get into poison ivy, I got it off of him correctly, or I do not react.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

Below is a photo of poison ivy I have growing at my home. Notice anything strange about it (other than I am purposefully growing poison ivy)?

The second photo shows it best: there is a group of only 2 leaflets instead of 3. Poison ivy always has 3 leaflets, but sometimes one can fall off, get bumped off, or eaten (humans are the only ones who react badly to this stuff; in fact, deer and rabbits supposedly love it).  Point being that poison ivy always has 3 leaflets unless something has damaged the plant. 
I don't know what happened to this leaf on my plant. God knows I didn't touch it!

What is it? Wednesday - Answer to "3 Leaflets!"

I few weeks ago, I posted a photo and asked if it was poison ivy or not. The answer is no, this is a young box elder tree.

Box elder is one of the most-often confused plants when compared to poison ivy. Just like poison ivy, it has 3 leaflets, the leaflets are often shaped similar to poison ivy, it can appear shiny, it grows in the same area as poison ivy, it has reddish stems, and the middle leaflet has a longer stem than the side leaflets.

What differentiates it from poison ivy is the leaf arrangement. When you click on the photo below to enlarge it, you will see two sets of leaflets right across from each other, circled in red:

As my identification skills got better, I also noticed a difference in the main stem of box elder. In the photo above, you will see two lighter colored bands around the stem (the bands are not limited to two, that's just all that is showing in this particular photo.) Poison ivy does not have these types of markings.

Poison ivy has alternate leaf arrangement, which means leaflets alternate sides of the stem - they are never right across from each other. There may be a rare occasion when they are pretty close to right across from each other, but that would be one rare spot on the plant, not the entire plant. This is alternate leaf arrangement on poison ivy:

Any time leaves are opposite, you can't be looking at poison ivy. This is a poison ivy leaf circled in orange below. It contains 3 leaflets. Leaf arrangement refers to each group of 3 leaflets (which makes 1 poison ivy leaf). It does not refer to the arrangement of the 3 leaflets to themselves.  

So, if a plant displays opposite leaf arrangement, it can safely be ruled out as poison ivy. Also, if you're looking at a plant that looks an awful lot like poison ivy but has opposite leaf arrangement, you're likely looking at box elder.

The original post can be found at

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Poison Ivy Life Cycle, Part 1

Poison Ivy - Early Stages

A poison ivy plant starts from a single seed. The seed spouts and produces two basal leaves (the two large leaves in the photo below.) Notice the two tiny leaves starting in the center of the plant. This seedling is approximately 3/4 to 1 inch wide.

I took the above photo at work. There's this amazing tree that is entirely covered in poison ivy and it makes hundreds of seedlings each year.  I showed the photo to a woman I work with and she said, "Aww... it's cute!" It actually kind of is cute when it's little. Too bad it becomes such a pain in the butt later.

Within a week, the two center leaves start to grow:

After about 1 week to a week and a half, two small leaves appear on either side of each leaf that has been growing. The basal (large oval leaves) have not changed:

After roughly another week, the side leaves are getting bigger:

This is another plant of the same age. Notice that the plant above shows notches in the leaves, but this plant does not. Not all poison leaves have notches.

Now it's starting to look like something resembling poison ivy. Depending on sun, rain, soil conditions, and other factors, this is about 3 weeks after it spouts.

After another week or two, a new set of 3 leaves erupts and it really starts to look like poison ivy.

Notice that the lowest two sets of leaves are directly opposite the stem from each other. Poison ivy leaves are always arranged on the stem alternately, not opposite. This is one of the criteria that can be used with certainty to identify poison ivy. However, when the plant is very young like this, the leaves are opposite. This is the only time you will see this on poison ivy. Read more about alternate and opposite leaf patterns.

Give it another few weeks and the leaves start to get larger, it looks more like poison ivy, and the leaf pattern is clearly becoming alternate. The basal leaves are still present, but they will drop off as the plant matures.

You probably would see poison ivy in this stage in your garden or flower beds. I had it all over the place at work because of the huge poison ivy plant covering the tree that dropped so many seeds, but you're probably finding it because the birds "planted" it for you.

Birds love poison ivy berries and suffer no ill effects whatsoever from eating them. Within the berries are seeds, which pass through the digestive track of the birds unharmed. The birds eat the berries, fly someplace else (like your yard) and poop. Pretty soon you'll have baby poison ivy plants!

These are immature poison ivy berries. When they mature, they will turn white.

I currently have a test poison ivy plant growing in a pot at home. As it matures, I'll post photos as it develops in Part 2 of Poison Ivy Life Cycle!

"What is it?" Wednesday - 3 Leaflets!

This plant has 3 leaves. Do you think it is poison ivy? If not, what do you think it is?

Answer is coming next week!

Last week's answer to What is it Wednesday?

These are milkweed (Asclepias) plants in bloom.  Milkweed is a perennial that is more than happy to spread all over my yard. Milkweeds are often visited by bees and are a larval food source for monarch butterflies. I have one milkweed plant in my backyard that is approximately 7 feet tall and is often surrounded by a number of bees. My dad got some plants from me and now complains he can't get rid of it. I keep mine because of the bees and because I have had some monarch larvae on the plants... that and it's pretty!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"What is it?" Wednesday - Purple Flowers

I have a ton of these plants growing in the yard. There's even some bees in the photos:

This blooms all June and is quite popular with the bees and butterflies. If you want a hint (scroll down)
... it is also quite popular with Monarch butterflies.

What is it? Think about it and I'll post the answer next week.

Last week's answer to:

This beautiful yellow flower is commonly called Bird's-foot Trefoil  or Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). It is a perennial that grows mostly in the Midwest but can be found over much of the continental US and Canada.  It has become invasive in some areas of North America and is considered especially problematic in the prairie and grassland regions of the Midwest.

Here locally in Columbus, it is common along the edges of the woods at the park I frequent. It's a beautiful contrast to the green of the woods.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Experiment: Vinegar, Salt and Poison Ivy

I have never been a huge fan of chemicals. I live on a property with a well and I realize that whatever I dump on the ground stands a possibility of making its way into my water supply and I'm not OK with that. Even if it doesn't make it into the well, I just don't like dumping toxins in my yard.

I am also not a huge fan of spending a lot of money. So, when my dad told me he had a weed killer recipe that was cheap and non-toxic, I was on board to try it out. The recipe is:
  • 1 gallon vinegar (I used white but apple cider vinegar works, too.)
  • 1 cup regular table salt
  • 1 Tablespoon dish detergent (I used Dawn and wound up pouring in more like 2-3 tablespoons)

Mix it all together and spray on weeds.  It should go without saying that it is not selective about what it kills, so be careful when spraying it around plants you want to keep.

So, as luck would have it, I found a patch of poison ivy in a flower bed in my yard last Saturday morning. The birds must have just stood there and pooped for 5 minutes because there sure were a lot of plants coming up. For those who don't know, poison ivy plants are primarily propagated by birds who eat the berries and then poop out the seeds. For some reason, I've had a bumper crop of poison ivy this year. Anyhow, here's the patch:

I decided to experiment with the weed killer on poison ivy. I'm not much into killing, even where plants are concerned, but I don't want this stuff growing in my yard. So, I sprayed half of the poison ivy to see if this week killer worked. Here's the half I sprayed:

The rest of Saturday was cloudy. When I came out in the afternoon, I saw that apparently I did not mix the weed killer too well because there sure was a lot of salt on the leaves.

 I shook things up and re-sprayed a bit more vinegar. I came out on Sunday morning and this is what I found - the plants were starting to die.

It should be noted that this patch of ivy is on the north side of a tree and gets maybe 2 hours of sun a day. I have tried this out on plants that live in full sun and had results within hours. Nevertheless, this was starting to die:

 By Monday night around sundown, it was really looking dead:

By the summer solstice (one week after initial application) the half I sprayed was totally gone.

I'm waiting to see if the half I sprayed re-grows, but I doubt they will since they were too young to really be established. I've seen similar recipes on the net and this site does a good job of explaining why vinegar and salt work:

I've got an ivy plant growing in a pot to see how fast it grows and how long it takes to start producing tendrills, etc.When it comes time to kill it off, I'm going to try this mixture on it, as an established plant, and see what happens.

For now, I'm hitting all of the small poison ivy plants in my yard with this stuff. So far, it seems to work.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"What is it?" Wednesday - Yellow Flower

I was walking in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park again tonight and found this wildflower growing all over:

I'm not going to do a multiple  guess this week, but I will tell you it was growing in sunny areas and plants were anywhere from 1 to 2 feet high.

Let me know what you think it is! Answer will be next week.

Last week's answer:

The correct answer is c) Virginia creeper.

This was a photo of Virginia creeper just coming up out of a mulched area at the park. If you look at the photo closely, you can count more than 3 leaves. This would eliminate the possibility of it being poison ivy.
Virginia creeper's name is well-earned because it does creep. In fact, it does not stand up and make a bush the way poison ivy can. All of its leaves come from the ground. The vine crawls along the ground and produces leaves, and at some point, the plant anchors itself in the soil as it goes along. The exception, of course, is that Virginia creeper will climb once it finds something to climb on. But, if it can't find anything to climb up, it will just keep creeping along.

This is a photo of me separating Virginia creeper leaves. As you can see, they are anchored to the ground. The 3 leaf objects you see are young Virginia creeper leaves, not poison ivy. I know this because those leaves are attached to the same vine that has 5 leaves on it. (I also know because I planted it on purpose.)

Poison Ivy or Not?

These photos were sent by JC. He thought it was a look-a-like, and I agree:

He said it grew slowly and with sucker pads as opposed to tendrils. He mentioned it was not doing any damage to the wall and in winter it dies off. He was wondering what this plant was.

I've determined it is not poison ivy because:

  • The top photo shows single leaves on the vine and the fourth photo shows single leaves in the background, and poison ivy never has single leaves;
  • The second photo shows the leaves close up. The middle leaflet of the 3 does not have a rachis (stem). Every poison ivy plant I've seen has a rachis on the middle leaflet which is noticeably longer than the 2 leaflets on the side;
  • This plant has suckers  (tendrils with sticky disks on them, see photo 3) and poison ivy does not.

My vote is for young Boston ivy. According to, young Boston ivy can have either single or compound leaves.

I'll be honest, though.. I've never seen Boston ivy in person, so if anyone knows for sure, please let me know!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fire pink, Scarlet catchfly

Last week at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, I came across a Fire pink, Scarlet catchfly (Silene virginica) These short-lived perennials are a beautiful contrast to the deep green of the woods!

Silene virginica is listed as Endangered or Threatened in Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but not Ohio. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"What is it?" Wednesday - Plant L eafing Out

Below is a photo of  a plant that has just shot up some new sprouts and is starting to leaf out.

What is this? Is this:

a) A Buckeye tree sprout
b) Poison ivy
c) Virginia creeper

I'll post the answer next week!

Last week's answer:

The correct answer is c) A dead tree covered completely in poison ivy.

Every bit of green you see in the photo is poison ivy. The tree is entirely dead with about 8 or 9 vines running up it. The vines are 2-3 inches in diameter. Whoever eventually takes this tree down is not going to have fun!

In fairness, this tree is an ash tree and it did die due to the Emerald Ash Borer, but since the tree is completely dead with no leaves on its own, it would have been impossible to tell that from this photo.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wildflower or Invasive? Dame's Rocket

Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis)  blooms late spring into very early summer with flower colors including white, lavender, pink, deep purple and rose. Flowers have 4 petals and can produce showy raceme. This plant was blooming in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park in late May. 

Although I've seen quite a bit of it in the park, I've also seen it growing in ditches and alongside woods all around Columbus.

Dame's Rocket seeds are sometimes included in "wild flower" mixes. However, as pretty as it is, it is actually considered an invasive species in Ohio. Cleveland Metro Parks have been working to eliminate it; read more at

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"What is it?" Wednesday: Living Tree or Not?

Below is a photo of a tree, part of which is clearly dead. Click to enlarge.

Is this:

a) An ash tree dying from the Emerald Ash Borer
b) A photo of two trees; the tall one is dead, the smaller one is alive.
c) A dead tree covered completely in poison ivy

Here's a photo of the leaves. Click to enlarge:

Let me know what you think it is!  I'll post the answer next Wednesday.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Young Poison Ivy

Most of us are familiar with poison ivy once it grows up enough to be a nuisance, but what about when it's first up?

This is a photo of a very young plant. Notice there are two oval leaves on either side of the stem. (As seen in this photo, those are the leaves at 12 and 6 o'clock - the top and bottom of the photo.) These leaves are called basal leaves, a term which refers to the lowest leaves on a stem.

When poison ivy plants are young, this is the only time they break the rules about 3 leaves and alternate leaf patterns. Pretty soon the basal leaves will drop off and there will only be the patterns of 3 leaflets.

This plant is growing in my yard. I found in it a flower bed a few weeks ago. For now, I'm letting it live so we can all see how it develops and grows.

Welcome to Ivy Central!

I'm an ex-environmental educator and photographer living in central Ohio. One of the things I used to teach about at my job was poison ivy identification. Even though I left the job a long time ago, I still can spot ivy very well and want to share my knowledge.

If you have something growing in your yard that you are not sure is poison ivy or not', post a photo and give me the URL. I'll do my best to help!