The itchy, painful and unsightly rash that comes with poison ivy contact is distinctly unpleasant and difficult to get rid of, so knowing what poison ivy looks like will help you avoid it in the first place. The rash comes from directly touching the leaves, vines or roots, and thus exposing yourself to urushiol, the naturally-occurring and potent oil within the plant which causes the extreme allergic reaction. This oil has been known to remain active on clothes and shoes for as long as a year after initial contact. The rash, which starts out as a mildly itchy area where the contact occurred, can eventually turn into a large crimson patch of sores that seems to itch endlessly and can last for up to three weeks. While there are a number of medications, medicated ointments and home remedies which are effective in speeding up the healing process, an even better approach is one of contact prevention through identification.
Poison ivy is categorized as a vine or an erect, woody shrub with above-ground roots that appear hairy. It is found growing throughout the U.S. and in southern Canada, though poison ivy tends not to grow at high altitudes or in arid, desert regions. The plant can grow to heights of over 10 feet, and prefers a base upon which to spread out and flourish. Frequently, these bases of support are trees, fences and walls, though they sometimes also appear on the ground in trails. They are also commonly found at the edges of fields and along roadsides.
One defining characteristic of the poison ivy plant are the three divided leaves present on the end of each stem. The middle leaf among these three medium-green colored leaves is always present at the longest end of the stalk. Small clusters of waxy, white berries are also present along the stem. These berries are a source of nourishment for songbirds, small mammals and deer; only humans are the only mammal susceptible to the allergic rash brought on by poison ivy contact. It's also worth noting, for identification purposes, that the leaves of poison ivy alternate on the stem.
Identifying poison ivy for the sake of avoidance can be made confusing by the fact that it bears a close resemblance to fragrant sumac, box elder and Virginia creeper plants. Fragrant sumac differs from poison ivy in that its center leaves are not on the end of a stalk, and its tiny berry clusters are red rather than white. Box elder can be differentiated from poison ivy by virtue of the fact that each stem sprouts anywhere from three to seven leaves, and the leaves are opposite on the stem. Box elder also grows as an erect tree, rather than a woody shrub or vine. Virginia creeper can also be differentiated from poison ivy through its number of leaves per stem, anywhere from three to five. Virginia creeper also sprouts leaves which are considerably larger and wider, and features tiny berry clusters which are a dark blue-black color, rather than a waxy white hue.