Poison Ivy or Beech Saplings?

Raise your hand if you’re allergic to Poison Ivy. I am! Did you know you can get Poison Ivy in your eyes? No? Well, you can. I can say from experience that you don’t want that to happen.

Now, raise your hand if you are constantly staring at plants in the woods and wondering, “Is that really Poison Ivy?”

It is easy to mix up Poison Ivy and Beech saplings this time of year. In the early spring, Poison Ivy announces itself loudly with the reddish-green shiny leaves. But now? Unless they are growing up a tree in a distinctive vine, it can be hard to differentiate.

Poison Ivy on Black Oak tree.

Let’s start with an easy ID. Here we are, Poison Ivy! It’s growing up the side of a nice healthy Black Oak tree. Notice the dull green color and the pattern of the wavy edges on the leaves. Also, look carefully at the veins. And this time of year, the leaves on Poison Ivy tend to look kind of old. These are spotty and a bit marked up where insects and such have taken their toll.

The stem is rather woody. Of particular interest, notice the groups of three leaves where two of the leaves are directly opposite each other. That’s right, when there are three leaves, two of them are always paired. Right across from each other.

Technically, each of those clusters of three is actually one leaf, and the individual third is called a leaflet. So it’s all one big leaf with three little leaflets.

Another thing to notice is that this long vine has multiple clusters of three. The leaves alternate. As in, groups of three leaflets are never directly across from each other on the vine or branch of Poison Ivy.

Beech tree leaves.

Now, let’s take a look at some Beech tree leaves. To our left, you have a branch on a mature Beech tree. The shape of the leaves? Nearly identical. The edges are scalloped in just the same way as Poison Ivy. The veining is also very similar, if not identical. The one main difference is that the leaves don’t reliably come in clusters of three and they alternate on the branch. That means that the leaves are never directly across from each other. They are not leaflets in clusters of three, they are individual leaves.

This is easy to see in a mature Beech branch, because there are many leaves. On a small sapling, there may legitimately be (and often are) only three leaves, total. I certainly see it often. However, even on the saplings the leaves alternate.

OK, pop quiz time! Poison Ivy or Beech Tree?

Poison Ivy or Beech Tree?

Take a look at the placement of the leaves on the woody stem. See how they come in triplets, with two leaves directly opposite? Poison Ivy. Another hint is the little green berries starting to show up. Birds love those berries once they are ripe, and that’s the way Poison Ivy spreads.

Here’s a trickier one. What do you see in this picture?

Poison Ivy or Beech Tree?

The three leaved plants? Poison Ivy. See how the group of three leaflets always has two directly opposite each other in a pair? That’s how you can spot Poison Ivy and differentiate it from a similar ground plant that just may happen to have three leaves.

There are also two small Virginia Creeper plants in this picture. They’re easy to spot. They have clusters of five leaves that are just a big more jagged than the other plants. Clearly not Poison Ivy. Don’t be tricked!