After experiencing a mysterious case of poison ivy himself, John Jelesko, a microbiologist and Virginia Tech professor, decided to look further into the itchy nonsense of poison ivy. He caught poison ivy like any normal human being would—without noticing. The power cable of the chainsaw he recently used dragged through a patch of it, leaving him with a very itchy and uncomfortable rash for weeks. If he had recognized the poison ivy in his midst, he may have thought twice about dragging the cord through the woods.
However, recognizing poison ivy is a lot more complicated than some people believe. The term “leaves of three, let it be” does ring true. But after Jelesko did years of research on poison ivy, he discovered that those leaves can come in all different shapes and sizes.
So what does this mean for us normal humans who haven’t done years of poison ivy research? How do we know which plants to avoid and which ones are safe? Fortunately enough, Jelekso has a few key points to remember if you trek through the woods this summer.
Watch out! The leaves can look different.
When you think of poison ivy, what do you think it looks? Three leaves, of course, but what about the shape? Most people believe that poison ivy has a pointy leaf shape, with jagged edges and large leaves. However, that’s not always true. Poison ivy can come in lots of shapes.
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Poison ivy can have smooth leaves or bumpy leaves. The edges could have sharp angles, both large and small. Some could even have smooth round leaf, looking nothing like the “typical” poison ivy that you have come to believe. Some poison ivy can even be deceitful, growing around or underneath other plants.
Where does it typically grow?
Poison ivy doesn’t always climb up walls or trees, it can also grow pretty low on the terrain. Jelekso says that poison ivy typically climbs on vines in cities, but in forests, they tend to be ground-creeping vines.
Now here’s the real kicker: You probably won’t find poison ivy in the middle of the woods. If you’re completely off the path and just trekking through a forest, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll come across a poison ivy branch. Apparently, poison ivy is usually found in “landscapes modified by humans,” according to Jelesko. So you’re probably at a higher risk of poison ivy on the immediate outskirts of the trail.
What if I end up touching it?
The faster you respond to poison ivy contact, the better. It’s important to wash the spot using soap and water within a few hours of contact. This can help with the outbreak.
Poison ivy causes a reaction due to oil inside the plant called urushiol. If you aren’t sure if it’s poison ivy or not, you can actually test it out with the sap of the plant. Using gloves, tear open the plant and spread some of the sap on a white piece of paper. If the sap turns black in 30 seconds, it’s poison ivy. If you don’t have time or resources to try this urushiol test, you can also examine the plant for black dots. Some poison ivy plants have them!
If you are dealing with poison ivy, soap (a simple hand soap or dishwashing liquid will work just fine) and lukewarm water is your best friend. You are also going to want to immediately wash the clothes you are in just in case the plant rubbed against any of your clothing.
Now a rash actually won’t appear right away. It could take between 12 to 72 hours for a poison ivy rash to show up. If it does, do not itch. Dermatologists recommend that you use an anti-itch or corticosteroid cream to soothe your rash. If it starts to get worse, a doctor’s visits may be in order. After two weeks of an unbearable rash, even Jelesko had to go to the doctor to receive oral steroids.
The age-old saying “leaves of three, let it be” does still apply, but it’s not limited to those ominous-looking plants. So if you’re going for a hike this summer, or simply hanging around the house, make sure to keep an eye out for all three-leaf plants.
Poison ivy isn’t the only invasive plant you may be dealing with this summer. These 12 plants in your yard may be dangerous, so be very careful.