Many people fear poison ivy, and for good reason. These dangerous plants cause severe, itchy rashes and blisters with one accidental touch. Unfortunately, there are many other plants that get a bad rap, purely because they look similar.
Knowing the difference between Poison Ivy and other harmless plants can save you a significant headache (and potentially a nasty rash), whether out on a foraging expedition or in your own backyard. Not all lookalikes are dangerous – some even provide delicious, completely edible berries.
It’s time to throw the phrase ‘leaves of three, let it be’ out the window and learn how to distinguish the toxic from the harmless.
Identifying Poison Ivy
Before distinguishing ivy from its lookalikes, you’ll need to know what it looks like. While you may have a general idea already, understanding the distinctive characteristics is essential in determining the differences between a dangerous and completely harmless plant.
Starting with the most obvious characteristic – poison ivy has three leaflets that alternate along the stem. These leaves can either be glossy or dull, but most varieties are usually shiny. The edges of the leaves can be jagged or smooth depending on the type. Each leaflet ends with a pointed tip, and the central leaflet will always have a longer stem than the others.
The leaves grow on sprawling vines that spread across the ground or climb nearby structures or trees. The vines can grow several feet tall and may have a reddish tinge. The leaves change color depending on the season, appearing green, yellowish-orange, or deep red. Small greenish flowers may develop on some poison ivy, turning into berries in fall and winter.
11 Poison Ivy Lookalikes
There are several different types of plants that look like poison ivy, which aren’t actually dangerous. It’s important to know which plants aren’t a threat, and which ones are, especially if you have an ivy allergy. Let’s look at the most common lookalikes.
Boxelder (Acer negundo) is a type of maple tree native to the United States. Although these trees can grow to impressive heights, looking nothing like ivy, it is in their early growth stages that many mistakes the leaves of this plant for its troublesome lookalike.
Boxelder leaves have a similar pointed shape, with the same distinctive veins and jagged edges. However, the key to telling these two plants apart is in the positions of the leaves. While poison ivy leaves alternate, boxelder leaves are positioned opposite each other along the stem. The colors of the stems may also be an indicator – boxelder stems tend to have a blueish tint, rather than red.
Older boxelder plants are far easier to separate from poison ivy as the stems develop more leaflets from the standard three groupings. The trunk of the tree also becomes more pronounced, eliminating any suspicion that it may be vining poison ivy.
Boxelders are not dangerous to humans and make wonderful carefree trees in American gardens. They are incredibly adaptable, growing in a wide range of conditions between USDA Zones 2 and 9, and thriving with little maintenance.
Most gardeners – or foodies – will be familiar with the delicious blackberry (Rubus spp.). Growing into a dense shrub, these plants are popular in gardens as an easy-to-grow edible plant or as an edible groundcover in foodscaping. Unfortunately, people mistake tasty plants for poison ivy due to their similar leaf shapes.
Looking beyond the leaf shapes though, blackberries are quite easy to identify. Take a look at the stems first – if you see thorns, you’re in the clear. Most blackberry varieties have thorny stems (ideal for use as a security hedge).
However, there are also thornless blackberries that make telling the two apart more difficult. If that is the case, take a closer look at the leaves. Blackberry leaflets may come in groups of three, but more often group in fours or fives, while ivy will always have three leaflets.
If the plants are producing fruit, they are far easier to tell apart. Poison ivy berries are small and lightly colored, while blackberries are large and (clear from the name), black in color. If you discover a healthy blackberry vine on or near your property, leave them to grow and they will provide you with a plentiful harvest in fall.
Another member of the berry family mistakenly named is the humble raspberry. Wild raspberries are common across the United States. People usually find this plant in the same areas as ivy, possibly even next to each other. This, plus their similar size and leaf shapes, often causes confusion between the two.
While their leaves are similar in shape, and their leaflets the same in number, raspberry leaflets always have serrated edges that are far more pronounced than the jagged edges of some varieties. The leaflets also have a rougher texture compared to the smooth poison ivy leaves, with very clear, deep veining.
Turn the leaves over, and you may notice a distinct color difference too. Raspberry leaves have a lighter tone, turning the bright green a greyish color. If the plants are producing fruit, you will instantly tell them apart by the shape and color of the berries. Raspberries start out a similar light color but ripen to a deeper red.
Wild raspberries are a foraging favorite and are safe to eat if you come across one. Always pick the ripe berries – they will not ripen further once removed from the plant – and clean thoroughly before eating.
Due to their ubiquity, poison ivy is most commonly confused with the Virginia creeper. This vining plant grows incredibly quickly in a wide range of conditions, often tied to arches or trained to grow up walls in gardens. The color-changing leaves look stunning in fall, creating a wash of warm red tones.
When you know what to look for, you can easily distinguish these favored plants. The main difference is in the scientific name of this plant: Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Quinquefolia means ‘five-leaved,’ describing the number of leaflets in one leaf grouping. While the leaves may occasionally come in threes, they will most likely be in groups of four or five. Three-leaved groupings are more common in younger plants than more established ones.
The leaflets of the Virginia creeper connect straight to the central branch, while poison ivy leaflets have their own smaller stems. The vines of the creeper also have a woodier texture, although it may be harder to distinguish in this way as the vines on some ivy varieties could also be described as woody. Virginia creeper berries, differing from the greenish-white, are a deep blue.
One thing does connect these two plants – the berries are not edible. When ingested, Virginia creeper berries may cause irritation and an upset stomach.
Hog peanut is another plant that often grows near poison ivy. This can make them very difficult to tell apart, but there are a few subtle distinctions between these two plants.
The three leaflets are consistent across both, but the stems those leaves appear on are slightly different. Hog peanut stems are far thinner than poison ivy, with a delicate appearance. Looking closely at the leaves, you will notice more pronounced vines on the poison ivy, but this is far easier to distinguish when the leaves are side by side.
Hog peanut leaves are rounder at the base compared to the narrower ivy leaves. They have been described as egg-shaped, but they also retain the classic poison ivy pointed tips. To the touch, hog peanut leaves are slightly fluffy (but touching the leaves to test them is clearly not recommended).
Another creeping vine often mistaken for poison ivy, and sharing a common name, is Boston ivy. Known as Parthenocissus tricuspidata, this woody plant is native to East Asia and is a relative of the Virginia creeper. Due to this relation, it’s easy to see why these two plants, or all three, are commonly confused.
Firstly, the leaf shapes are very similar. Both feature the quintessential three-leaflet pairing, but Boston ivy leaves occasionally have fused side leaves, creating two leaflets instead of three. This is because the leaves come in compound and simple forms, whereas the poison ivy leaves are always compound. The leaf margins differ slightly in that Boston ivy is always serrated, while poison ivy is irregularly jagged and may even be completely smooth.
The leaflets also appear on much shorter stems. These stems are similar in size, as opposed to the long center stem of the middle poison ivy leaflet.
Boston ivy is an incredibly popular garden plant, often found climbing up walls in formal gardens. But people and animals should beware and stay away, as it is toxic when ingested. Some people are also sensitive to this plant and may develop a rash from touching it, so it is best to handle it with caution.
Less common than Boston ivy is Jack-in-the-pulpit, known as Arisaema triphyllum. This interesting plant has unique flowers and berries that look nothing like ivy. However, when the plant is in the early stages of growth, the leaves do look slightly similar, causing the occasional mix-up.
The leaves of this plant are always smooth, never jagged. Jack-in-the-pulpit leaves top long, upright stems and they don’t alternate along a vine. The leaves are also larger and wider than most poison ivy varieties, especially at maturity. If that is not enough to convince you, take a look at the center vein of the leaves. If it reaches all the way to the end, you’ve got poison ivy. But, if it does not touch the edge, it is probably jack-in-the-pulpit.
This plant produces unique flowers on separate stems, as well as small red berries in late Summer. Although normally found naturally in woodlands, its interesting displays make for a wonderful ornamental plant. They are also quite rare and are due for appreciation if you come across one.
Gardeners will be familiar with the common garden strawberry, an edible plant beloved by gardening beginners. You’re unlikely to come across this species when walking in the woods. However, you may come across wild strawberries, which happen to look quite similar to poison ivy.
The leaf textures of wild strawberries match ivy and feature the same vein pattern. They also come in groups of three leaflets. But, the edges of these leaflets are far more jagged than poison ivy. Where they greatly differ is in the leaf tips. While other poison ivy lookalikes feature a pointed tip, strawberry leaves are more rounded. This differentiation instantly indicates the plant should not be feared.
Mock strawberry (Duchesnea Indica) is similar to the wild strawberry, but the leaves have a yellow tinge to them. The fruits of mock strawberry are not as tasty as their namesakes. If you come across this plant there is no danger, but it is best to remove it from gardens if you find any on your property as it is an invasive species.
This plant is considered the yang to poison ivy’s yin. People mistake these two for each other on occasion, but these plants couldn’t be more different. In fact, you’d be lucky to come across a jewelweed plant if you’ve been in contact with poison ivy, as it is used to treat the rashes associated with the plant.
The veining and texture of the leaves on these two plants are relatively similar. However, jewelweed lacks the triplet leaflets that give it its warning motto. Several leaves appear atop long stems and can come in threes, but are usually found in larger groups. The stems are also a lighter green color and don’t sport the reddish tint that may appear on some ivy varieties.
In spring, these plants are far easier to tell apart due to the orange blooms that adorn the jewelweed plant. But the real value is inside the stem of the plant. The juice found here is often used as a natural remedy for poison ivy rashes or to treat any itching.
Although the mix-up is less common, those who have never seen poison ivy in person may be fearful if they come across a bushkiller vine. This invasive plant is not welcome in gardens or woodlands, but they are not dangerous if touched.
The key distinguishing feature is the leaflet groupings. Like the Virginia creeper, bushkiller vine leaflets come in fives, with the center leaflet far longer than the other four. The extra two leaflets are also smaller and rounder than the other three.
Bushkiller vine thrives in rainy weather and can take over your garden in a matter of days. If you come across one of these highly invasive plants, remove it immediately and destroy the plant to avoid further spreading.
Last on the list of lookalikes, we have fragrant sumac. This shrub grows to around 4 feet tall and spreads wider, displaying leaf groupings in a dense bush. It is a relative of poison ivy but doesn’t share its dangerous characteristics. Fragrant sumac is, luckily, completely harmless.
The leaf stems are the most common distinguishing factors. While poison ivy has the long center leaf stem, the stems on fragrant sumac are all very short or non-existent. As a shrub, this plant cannot climb like poison ivy, nor does it snake up trees in the wild.
Fragrant sumac flowers in clusters of yellow blooms, producing red berries. The berries, despite their fuzzy appearance, are edible when raw and have an acidic quality. There are some people who process them and use the juice in drinks or make it into teas.
If you fear a plant you come across is poison ivy, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and stay away. However, with a bit of investigation, you are likely to find many of the plants are completely harmless. Some may even make wonderful additions to your garden. Armed with the knowledge of the distinguishing characteristics, you should be able to tell danger from harm in a matter of minutes.