The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


July 25, 2013

Poison ivy primer: Many of Missouri's plants look like the itchy ivy

A weed ecologist with the USDA said that poison ivy may be advancing with climate change. As long as carbon dioxide continues to rise above average levels, then the weed will grow faster, bigger and meaner, according to a report from Scripps Howard News Service.

Missouri may have already had that problem, just in a different way: Cyndi Cogbill, of the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that every county in Missouri has poison ivy. And while the increased heat and moisture that accompanies global warming may aid the itchy ivy, it also helps all those other weeds grow.

"Poison ivy will respond just like anything else," Cogbill said. "Competition is built into the ecosystem, and it is competing with everything else out there."

The key is recognizing it. As Cogbill mentioned, there are a lot of other weeds out there that may look like poison ivy, but are not.

In a nutshell: Poison ivy has three main leaves on a sprig, and each of those leaves have sparsely placed, jagged teeth. It grows mainly in forests and along fence lines.

This is poison ivy.

Note the leaves of three, where the center leaf is on its own stem. Also note the sparse, jagged teeth of the leaves. Sometimes the stems will be red and it will have white berries. And if it's clinging to a post or tree, the roots will be exposed.

Not ivy: This is blackberry.

The teeth of the leaves are more jagged than poison ivy, and the stems are covered with small prickles. And if this plant had berries, they would be darkly colored.

Not ivy: This is fragrant sumac.

It may be a little stinky, but it's not poisonous, Cogbill said. Break open the leaves yourself to smell how pungent it is, and don't worry about getting an itchy rash. Fragrant sumac has the leaves of three, but no teeth on those leaves. It also grows more like a bush instead of a weed.

Not ivy: This is Virginia creeper.

While it has the same external roots and similarly shaped leaves, it has five leaves on each sprig instead of three. The ivy grows in a similar manner to poison ivy, as well. But the plant is safe: This particular plant grows right outside the door of Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center.

Itchy identity

The ivy is covered in urushiol, the oil that gives the plant its rash reputation. It is potent stuff -- it can remain on other surfaces for years, according to the Scripps Howard report.

Cogbill said that washing it with a detergent that breaks down oils is best to soothe the itch, but the oil can linger on clothes, shoes or pets, so everything that gets touched should be washed as soon as possible.

Around Missouri, outdoorsy types don't need to worry about the plant's oil-soaked cousins, poison oak and poison sumac.

"Poison sumac has never been found in Missouri, and poison oak has been found in only a few counties," she said. "Poison ivy can be found in every county in Missouri."

Cogbill said she hears concerns from people during nature hikes and other outdoor ventures, who easily confuse Missouri's many weeds.

Cogbill said that kids can easily remember the rhymes, "Leaves of three, let it be" and "Berries white, poisonous sight." Those two rules will help keep kids away so they can let you know whether a plant is dangerous or not.

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