Naturalist’s Notebook: Leaves of Three? Let it Be!


Have you ever been really, really itchy? If you plan to go for a walk in the woods or help your parents clean brush and weeds around your house, this issue of Naturalist’s Notebook may save you from an itchy future.

There is a very common plant in Tennessee called POISON IVY. An old rhyme helps you to spot this poisonous plant. The first part goes like this: “Leaves of three. Let it be!”

The phrase “Leave it be!” means to stay away from poison ivy! Don’t touch it, don’t cut it, don’t pull it up, and don’t burn it. Contact with poison ivy could mean itchy bad news for you.

Poison ivy does have clusters of three leaves, as the rhyme says, so be on the lookout for that. The trouble is, it grows in several forms, so it can be a trickster.

Sometimes poison ivy looks like a small bush on the forest floor that is 1 to 3 feet tall. If you are hiking through the woods, it is easy for your legs to brush against the leaves. If your dog runs through a poison ivy patch and then you pet it, the sap could get on your hands.

Poison ivy also grows as a vine. I’ve included photos of young plants with shiny, reddish leaves, of a small vine starting to climb a tree, and of large poison ivy vines with red hairs that cling to a tree trunk to help it climb to the top of the tree.

I often find tiny little poison ivy plants around tree trunks in my yard that have sprouted from seeds. If you aren’t paying attention, it is very easy to reach down and pull the plant from the ground, roots and all, with your bare hand.

How do those seeds get around my trees? Large poison ivy vines in trees have berries, and birds love to eat poison ivy berries! I’ve seen at least 15 kinds of birds eating the berries during the winter. After snacking on the berries, they land in your tree and poison ivy seeds are spread wherever the bird poops.

You may be very sensitive to a substance called urushiol (pronounced U-RU-SHE-ALL) in the sap of the plant. If the leaves or stems have been broken or injured, the sap could stick onto your skin or clothes. In a day or two you might notice a red rash or maybe even blisters where you touched the plant. That rash itches like crazy! And it may last for more than a week.

Study my pictures and learn what poison ivy looks like, and be careful. If you should be exposed to poison ivy, there is a simple thing you can do to protect against the rash.

As quickly as possible, wash your hands or any part of you that was in contact with the plant with soap. Don’t forget to wash the back of your hands and between your fingers very carefully. Since this is also a way to avoid catching the COVID-19 virus, just keep doing it to protect against poison ivy’s itchy rash too.

If you think the sap might have gotten on your clothes, ask an adult to throw them in the washer. This will remove the sap.

I didn’t mention that there is a second part of that “Leaves of three. Let it be!” rhyme. It says “Leaves of five. Let it thrive!” I’ve added a photo of another vine called Virginia Creeper. A lot of people mistake this common vine for poison ivy.

The leaves do look similar, but the difference is the number of leaves. You’ll notice that Virginia Creeper has clusters of five leaves. It is not poisonous or dangerous to us at all. Don’t worry about it and let it live.

Virginia Creeper is a host plant for several types of moth caterpillars. It also produces tasty blue berries each fall that help feed wildlife. And the best thing is – no itching involved!

Mr. Bill





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