Poison Ivy is out in full force right now. Its viney being can be noted in local fields, climbing up trees, taking over gardens, and growing roadside all across the Eastern Shore. The three-leaved bandit is very hard to eradicate, serves no real purpose as a plant, and makes most who come into contact with it break out in a horrendous rash. Another native plant that resembles Poison is equally abundant but doesn’t cause any side effects after touch. Want to know the difference?

While hiking recently, I decided that it was worth my while to learn which plants I could touch and which plans I should make a point not to get anywhere near – thus, leading to a comparison of Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. My objective of this column today is to make sure that you know the difference between the two, also.

Virginia Creeper generally has four or five leaves but sometimes may have only three. Some juvenile plants have only three leaves.  One noticeable difference between Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper, if you’re willing to get close enough to look, is that the vine of Virginia Creeper is woody. The wood-like vine has simple tendrils that hold the plant to its ‘host’. The Virginia Creepers climbs up or along other plants, brush, trees, or supports nearby. Deep blue berries can be found on Virginia Creeper’s during the fall.

After sharing a photo of what I thought was Poison Ivy covering a tree in my yard last fall, Dave Wilson, Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program said “Touch that plant all you want. It’s Virginia Creeper. Dive on in if you wish.”

I did some research and it seemed as though Wilson proved to be right. I did, out of curiosity, bravely touch the plant while gardening a few days later and didn’t break out in a rash. Some cruel joke that would have been.

Birds are greatly attracted to the bright blue berries and red foliage – one that hides its underlying fruits. It’s rumored that 35 species of birds on the Eastern Shore eat the fruit from the Virginia Creeper. Thrushes, woodpeckers, warblers, and vireos can often be seen making frequent visits to Creeper vines.

During the autumn months, both plants turn an eye-catching vibrant red color. Both Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy may be found naturalized on your property or in wooded areas locally. The plants are essentially planted by birds that consume their seeds and then release them back onto the soil via their droppings.

The featured image is one that I snapped of some brilliant red Virginia Creeper last November. About the photo, florist Marcy Almoney commented, “That’s definitely Virginia Creeper. Not Poison Ivy.”

After asking around, I even heard that some brave florists actually use Virginia Creeper in floral arrangement during the fall because of its beautiful bright coloring.

Poison Ivy will always have three leaves. Its leaf pattern will always be the same; center leaf stem being longer than the other two and greater in size. During the fall, Poison Ivy develops and drops greenish-white berries. And of course, Poison Ivy is known for its itchy red rash caused on the skin after coming in contact with the plant.

Hairy vines that wrap around trees are leftover from Poison Ivy. They are a tell-tale sign of Poison in the area. Living Poison Ivy can sprout from this dark, thick, hairy vine. Typically, these mature vines mean that it’s a reasonable time to remove Poison Ivy – if you dare. Typically the winter months are the “best” months to extract Poison Ivy from your yard or garden. The leaves and vines can still possess oil that causes a rash. The climbing variety of Poison Ivy looks very similar to standard poison Ivy.

Oil secreted by Poison Ivy is called Urushiol. Urushiol can be spread by direct contact or through the air. The oil can even be dispersed through the air when Poison Ivy plants are burned. If inhaled, Urushiol can cause a terrible internal reaction that will need to be treated immediately. It’s highly suggested that Poison plants are never burned.

Poison Sumac is a native vine of shrub of the Eastern Shore. The sap of this plan contains Urushiol. The oil is only secreted when the plant’s tissue is damaged. Sumac grows clusters of red berries that grow upright. As mentioned above, Poison Ivy grows single greenish-white berries. Poison Sumac prefers to grow in very wet, flooded soils and can typically be found in bar or marsh lands.

Yet another form of Poison calls the Southeastern US its home: Poison Oak. Poison Oak looks just like Poison Ivy. Only difference is that this form doesn’t climb things. Poison Oak causes the same miseries as Poison Ivy.

Some people appear to be immune to Poison Ivy, Sumac, or Oak and are lucky enough to have never had its terrible rash. Just remember, that like any other allergy, it is possible to lose immunity. Don’t be foolish when hiking, gardening, or spending time outdoors. It is best to avoid brightly colored red leaves of three at all costs.

Don’t learn your lesson the hard way. Use these tips and plant characteristics to identify ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vines seen frequently in our wooded area. Leaves of three, let it be! Leaves of five – ah, it’s probably just Creeper.

A Guide to Poison Ivy, Sumac, Oak & Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper Poison Ivy Poison Sumac Poison Oak
* Generally 4 or 5 leaves * Always 3 leaves * Always 3 leaves * Always 3 leaves
* No leaf stems * Center leaf stem is longer than other two * Clusters of red berries in fall * Red leaves in fall
* Red leaves in the fall * Center leaf is larger than others * Berries grow upright * Does not climb
* Deep blue berries in the fall * Climbing vine * Climbing vine * Grows individual plants in soil
* Climbs ‘host’ trees, shrubs, or nearby items * Red leaves in fall * Grows in very wet soil * Sometimes has greenish-white berries
* Harmless to the touch * Greenish-white berries in fall * Causes itchy rash after contact occurs with damaged, open plant * Causes itchy rash after contact occurs
* Causes itchy rash after contact occurs

Photo by Ami Reist.

Disclaimer: Some individuals may experience an allergic reaction to Virginia Creeper. Please consult a professional for clarification if you are uncertain. 

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