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How to identify poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak

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Did you know that poison ivy is responsible for more than two million cases of skin poisoning each year?  Can you spot and identify poison ivy? What about poison oak or sumac? For far too many of us, we don’t realize what we’ve gotten into until it is too late. I usually don’t know that I’ve encountered poison ivy until my hand begins to itch like crazy and I have red spots all over my skin.

Recently, I came across the expression "Leaves of Three - Let Them Be" that I wish I had heard years ago. This handy, easy-to-remember saying applies to both poison ivy and poison oak; poison sumac is another matter. Poison sumac is a little less common in most parts of the United States so it isn’t popular enough to deserve its own saying; plus it is difficult to find a word that rhymes with sumac.

Poison Ivy Poison Oak Poison Summac

Poison Ivy

Poison Oak

Poison Summac

Is there any easy way to distinguish these three weeds from other less harmful plants? Of course, there is and here is how you can tell:

  • Poison Ivy: Poison ivy is commonly found on the edges of wooded areas. Three leaves arise from each branch and they are typically shiny. The weed can grow as a shrub or as a vine crawling up fences, arbors and trees. It is found throughout the United States but more sporadically in the Midwestern and northern United States.
  • Poison Oak: Three green leaves also grow on a vine or shrub. The leaves, which are reddish in the springtime, resemble those of an oak tree but with rough edges. Poison oak looks similar to poison ivy; however the leaves of poison oak are a much duller green. Also, the poison oak leaflets have hairs on both surfaces unlike those of poison ivy. Poison Oak grows from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States to Texas and along the West Coast.
  • Poison Sumac: The easiest way to identify this plant is by its red stem. Poison Sumac can sport up to 13 leaves per stem and grows in the form of a tree or shrub. Green berries grow among the leaves and the branch rather than on the end of the branch. Good news for you West Coasters Poison Sumac is only found on the East Coast.

The easiest way to prevent reactions from these miserable poison plants is to be on the lookout for it and avoid it. Herbicides are commonly used to destroy these weeds. If you will be working in your yard where you suspect one of these weeds to be growing, wear long pants, long sleeves, boots, and gloves. Keep in mind that the oil from these plants sticks to clothing and can still be transferred to your skin.

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