While hiking in the woods the other day, I saw these two commonly confused natives and thought I’d snap a photo.
It becomes ten times easier to distinguish the two when they are nicely growing next to one another. Meet Virginia. Virginia Creeper (left) and Poison Ivy (right). Clearly the main difference is the number of leaflets on the leaf—the age old saying “leaves of three, leave them be” is a wise one! When you look at the scientific name of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, the species name “quinque – folia” directly translates from latin as “five-leaved”. It’s probably easier just to stick with the age-old saying rather than to learn all of Latin, but I thought it was an interesting factoid worth sharing.
While many people confuse Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy, I personally always have to do a double-take when I see a Box Elder (Acer negundo) sapling. The principle difference here being that Box Elder leaves always grow in an opposite fashion and Poison Ivy leaves always grow in an alternate fashion. “Poison Ivy is always alternate, even on opposite day” is the saying that I have coined but has yet to catch on in the lower 48 states.
I used to hate Poison Ivy and minimally have one annual Poison Ivy break-out. Now that I can properly identify it, I rarely have a problem with it. Actually, I also have grown to appreciate Poison Ivy because its white berries which ripen from August through November, and persist on the plant through winter months are a favorite for birds that overwinter when other food is scarce. Over 60 different species of birds have been reported to dine on the berries and have no allergy to the urushiol that causes the miserable rash on unsuspecting humans. So if you have Poison Ivy on your property that is in a spot that is out of the way from foot traffic or children’s play areas—consider leaving it for our feathered friends!