Poison ivy, oak, and sumac – how to identify, treat, and a fun little game


When hiking, bugging out, or working in your backyard, you may come in contact with a poison plant. There are many poisonous plants but I am going to focus on the three that everyone knows but may not know how to identify. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac.

Why am I writing this?

Because I was wanted to learn about these plants myself and the best way to get information to stick is to teach it to someone else.

Where do these plants grow and how do I identify them?

POISON IVY grows throughout all of the US states except California, Alaska, and Hawaii. It likes to grow near disturbed ground like along hiking trials. They grow as ground cover, shrub, or a climbing vine. Leaves are in clusters of three (“leaves of three let them be”), they are green in the summer, red in the fall, and have grayish-white berries.

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POISON OAK isn’t as common as ivy, but is still prevalent in the US sticking to the west coast and the south eastern states. The leaves look like poison ivy but with more rounded edges, look like little oak leaves, and also grow in groups of three. It too likes growing along disturbed ground, grows as a shrub in sunlight, or climbs up trees as a vine in search of more sunlight. Leaves will be bronze, bright green, yellow-green, or red in the fall. The berries of poison oak are a greenish-white or tan.


POISON SUMAC is found in the eastern US and grows as a shrub that looks like a tree as tall as 20 feet. Luckily these plants like to stay to swamps or peat bogs so you may never run into these. These don’t grow in groups of three and instead have 5-13 leaves per stem. Stems are red in the spring, and brown in the fall and winter. They have oval-shaped berries that are white-gray in color.


In summary:

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Let’s play a game. I will show various pictures of poisonous plants and you have to guess what they are. Comment below with your guesses and I will respond in a week with the answers. 


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How to avoid exposure?

The sap of these plants contain a toxin called urushiol oil. The good thing is that this sap is on the inside of the plant and touching the leaves doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to start itching. However, undamaged plants are rare and most have had the sap leak on leaves at some point be it from an animal brushing against it or if you are clearing some land and break the stem open. This oil can transfer to your shoes, clothes, pets, or tools, like if you were hiking and stepped on a plant, you then later touch your shoes to take them off and the oil transfers to your hands. 

When out hiking, wear long pants, boots, and gloves. If you know there are poisonous plants in the area, wear disposable gloves when removing this clothing. Wash these clothes separately than your other clothes with soap and hot water to displace the urushiol oil.

What happens if I come in contact? Will I die!?

In extreme circumstance you may have an entire body reaction where your eyes swell shut and your body swells up. If this happens go to the ER immediately, but for most people it will just be uncomfortable and irritating.

The oil will cause redness, swelling, itching, and blisters within 12-48 hours. (it may not appear for 7-10 days for people who have never been exposed to it before) Avoid touching and itching the area because you may just spread the oil to other parts of your body, hard to do though when it takes so long for it to show up. 

Urushoil oil is absorbed by different parts of your body at different rates so it may appear that it is spreading.

Do not burn these plants to get rid of them because that oil will get in the air and can get in your lungs and affect you from the inside.

How do I treat if I touch it? 

Rinse the area off with rubbing alcohol to displace the oil. Then rinse off with water to try and get off as much as possible. And lastly after that wear disposable gloves and use soap and warm water. The soap and water step is last to avoid spreading the oil to other parts of your body during the lathering stage. 

The rash, blisters, and itch will disappear in about two weeks without any treatment. Applying a cool compress, topical or oral antihistamines, topical hydrocortisone cream, or topical anesthetics can help relieve the pain. If you have oozing blisters (that’s a nice thought isn’t it), applying baking soda, or calamine can help dry out the blisters.

In conclusion:

To be honest, I’ve never looked for any of these plants when out hiking. Most of them look just like any other random plant that I might walk by and never notice, so it will take some effort to slow down and be observant.

Have any of you ever come in contact with any of these plants? Share your story.

Also, remember to share your guesses to the identification quiz down below. I’ll share the answers in a week. 


  • Comments (24)

    • 5

      Being in Mississippi, all three are very common here… with poison ivy everywhere.  Nowadays, if I touch poison ivy, I’ll start itching.  When younger, at Mississippi State in their School of Forestry, I was around it so much out in the woods that it wouldn’t bother me in the least.  Poison ivy vines can get over an inch in diameter & climb up the tallest of trees.  The leaves turn a beautiful bright red in the fall.

      • 3

        Also in Mississippi, Redneck, and my yard is full of poison oak and ivy. I am blessed that it has never bothered me, but my wife, son, and one grand daughter can’t even look at it without breaking out! My problem has always been how to get rid of the stuff. I have tried numerous commercial poisons, pulling it out by the roots, and even burning it, but it always comes back. Any suggestions?

        Good stuff, Robert. I never knew how to identify any of it until I moved to MS. Unfortunately it seems like you have to be allergic and break out badly before one learns what to look for.

      • 3

        I have had good results with a very concentrated spray of Glyphosate (Roundup).  It sometimes takes two separate doses.  

      • 1

        Another thought that came to mind while reading your discussion back and forth is to know how to identify these plants and take them out before they can develop berries and spread. Hopefully after a year or two of hunting them down on a property they will be eradicated.

      • 2

        Yes, that was my idea. The good thing is that once you’ve gotten it, it stands out wherever it is as though it were fluorescent red. It’s a beautiful little plant.

      • 4


      • 2

        That looks like poison ivy to me, the pointy tip gives it away.

        It is a good looking plant, and doesn’t look harmful at all. I can see why people might brush by it by accident.

        I wonder how many animals eat these poisonous plants and what their reactions are. Or are they able to sense the potential danger about them…

    • 4

      A friend and I were putting up ladder stands for deer season one cold fall day. My friend cut a large vine off a couple of feet over where his head would be and placed his stand under it, thinking it dead once he cut it. Opening day was warmer than usual, The cut vine leaked oil onto the seat of his stand and down his back once he sat in it…all morning. He missed the first two weeks of deer season until he could get it all cleared from his back and butt, not to mention the continuous pain and itching. Cut your vines in cold weather and of course always wear protective clothing when handling it. I do burn it, but I wait till it is dried out before burning and I stay upwind to avoid inhaling any oily smoke.

      • 1

        Ouch! All down your back and butt has got to be miserable.

    • 3

      Thank you for sharing your research with us Robert! I enjoyed reading it.

      Here are my guesses for the game-

      A- Poison Ivy

      B-Poison Ivy

      C-Poison Ivy

      D-Poison Ivy

      E- Poison Oak

      F- Poison Sumac

      G- Poison Oak

      H- Poison Ivy

      I- Poison Oak

      J-Poison Sumac

      K- Poison Oak

      L- Poison Ivy

      • 2

        I was thinking L is sumac, but I think it is ivy too.

    • 3

      Ooo! This is so creative. I wanna play too.

      A) oak

      B) sumac

      C) ivy

      D) oak

      E) ivy

      F) sumac

      G) oak

      H) sumac

      I) ivy

      J) sumac

      K) ivy

      L) sumac

      Not saying I’ll do any good, but I’ll give it my best shot

      • 1

        I only got 5 out of 12 correct. 🙁 Sad day…  It was fun to take the quiz though.

    • 4

      I got poison ivy here in Columbia, Missouri, in May 2007. I had cut and was hauling away an armload of weeds in the backyard. The next day I had poison ivy welts on my arms and legs. The most agonizing, continuous pain and itching imaginable. I scratched them all night and predictably spread it all over my body. Jewelweed didn’t help at all. Calamine lotion didn’t help at all. I just suffered through it for an entire month. I had had no idea it would last for so long. 

      I look for it when we walk in the woods now and see it climbing up many tree trunks. We get some every year in the yard. I used round-up once in 2008, but just don’t want to use it again. This wouldn’t work if you have a lot, but for individual plants I carry out a pot of boiling water. I pour salt on the plant and then boiling water. Within minutes it is shriveled up. Strong vinegar works as well.

      • 2

        Using boiling water, salt, and/or vinegar are good strategies that everyone already has in their homes. Hopefully that does the trick and people don’t need to buy additional products from the store.

      • 3

        They sell a special higher concentration vinegar to use as an herbicide. I got it on Amazon several years ago, but it was expensive. But it’s safe.

      • 3

      • 1

        The household vinegar I have is only 3% concentration, so I doubt it will do anything against plants. Thank you for linking the more concentrated 20% mixture.

        I wonder if there is a way to boil off some of the water of normal vinegar and make it more concentrated.

    • 3

      Thanks so much for this post! I live in Northern California, and we have poison oak in many of our wild areas around us, and also in open spaces, trails, and the edges of parks. I am extremely allergic to it and break out in terrible patches of blisters from just a slight touch. As a Girl Scout troop leader, I have made sure that the girls in my troop know how to identify it. We tell them “Leaves of three, let it be,” but then they can get it confused with wild blackberry, which often grows in the same areas. So the second part of the refrain we teach is “If it’s hairy, it’s a berry” and they do very well with id. We also have studied photos of throughout the year, so they know what it looks like in all seasons. Your photos were terrific for this!

      One thing I always carry with me are ‘Ivy-X’ Individually packaged poison oak/ivy wipes (I bought mine on Amazon). They remove the poison oak oils immediately so you don’t have to wait until you get home to try to remember where you touched the plant. They are great to have on a hike when you may just brush the poison oak with your arm on a narrow path, and also fantastic for children who may not be as good at paying attention to poison oak on the trail as adults. I highly recommend these.

      • 2

        I’m glad you think the pictures I found on Google were good representations of what the plants actually look like. To be honest, I have never seen any of these in person so I wanted to learn about them and help others as well.

        And THANK YOU for the Ivy-X recommendation. I think I found that same product and have linked it below for everyone

      • 2

        Yep, that’s the one! Thanks for linking it!

    • 1

      Truth be told, I’ve never searched for any of these plants while out climbing. The majority of them resemble whatever other irregular plant that I could stroll by and never notice, so it will require a work to dial back and be attentive.


    • 5

      Here are the answers to the identification quiz!

      A) Ivy
      B) Sumac
      C) Ivy
      D) Ivy
      E) Oak
      F) Sumac
      G) Oak
      H) Ivy
      I) Oak
      J) Sumac
      K) Oak

      L) Ivy

    • 4

      Not preparedness-related, but my favourite fact about poison ivy etc. is that urushiol, the compound that people react to, is the exact same compound that’s polymerized to make lacquerware: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urushiol

      The lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, is in the same genus as poison ivy/oak/sumac.

      • 1

        That is interesting! I wonder who thought up to use that for the first time. I can see it going somewhat like this “Hey Bill, you know that plant poison ivy? And you know how there’s that chemical and if it gets on your skin you break out in a horrible rash? Well, how about we try using that as the main ingredient in a lacquer to cover our plates with that we will eat off of.” Bill just goes “Say what???”

        Looks like it paid off though. The wikipedia article says These lacquers produce very hard, durable finishes that are both beautiful and very resistant to damage by water, acid, alkali or abrasion.