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How to Spot Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

Posted Jul 27 2010 7:32am

If you play golf as poorly as I do, you're probably confronted with this question: Is it really worth going into that clump of green leafy plants to get my golf ball back? Go ahead and laugh, but there are three possibilities when you go after a golf ball in the summer, and two of them are bad: You could find your ball, you could find your ball and poison ivy or you could find your ball and a snake.

(I suppose you could find your ball, a snake and poison ivy, but you'd be one unlucky golfer.)


Even if you're not a golfer, you can probably find poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac lurking in a green patch near you. Here's how to identify the three and tell them apart from plants that don't cause painful, itchy reactions.

Poison oak (pictured right) can grow as both a climbing vine or a shrub. It's more widely spread in the Western United States but can be found in the South, Midwest and even in Northern states. It typically has three leaflets with reddish stems.

Poison ivy (pictured below) like poison oak can grow as a vine or a shrub. Like poison oak, it also has three leaflets. It can also occasionally have five, which makes it difficult to distinguish from less irritating plants.


Both poison ivy and poison oak also produce white berries during the summer and fall, which makes them even easier to spot. Just follow the old adage, "Leaves of three, let it be; berries white, poisonous sight," and you'll be fine.

Poison sumac looks a little different than its rash-causing cousins. It typically grows in standing water in swampy areas in the Southeast, Northwest and Midwest. It has seven to 13 leaflets. ( See a photo of poison sumac here .)

The three plants all contain urushiol. It's this oil which cause uncomfortable rashes. Unfortunately, urushiol is hard to shake. You can get a rash by coming into direct contact with the plants or indirect contact with clothing or animals that have come into direct contact with the plants. And burning the plants can release particles of the oil into the air which can land on the skin.

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