How to Identify Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Our perception of “living off the land” has been romanticized; we imagine using our outdoor know-how to masterfully concoct meals from our natural surroundings (and maybe impress our friends too). But throwing caution to wind in situations like this isn’t going to end well. Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac have quietly permeated nearly all of America’s wilderness. Their effects can cause quite the unpleasant surprise. Would you like to pass out? Maybe vomit? How about some painful rashes? We didn’t think so. Read on to make sure any of this doesn’t happen to you. Learn how to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac

Many types of poisonous plants occur throughout the United States, and they vary by region. We will go through the plants you will most likely see: poision ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

Note: Be sure to check with the park agency for information regarding plants usually growing in your area. 

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy is the most common poisonous plant in the United States. You find them nearly everywhere, apart from the West Coast. 

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Here are some ways to identify them: 
  • Clusters of 3 leaves
  • They can grow as vines and on the ground
  • Waxy on the top of the leaf
  • Fuzzy on the bottom
  • Can have lobes or can be smooth
  • Oily-looking
  • Bigger center leaf, smaller side leaves
In the Spring: 
  • Red and shiny leaves
  • Green and duller leaves
  • Flower buds (turn into white flowers)
In the Summer:
  • Reddish-green leaves (especially red at the tips)
  • Wild berries
In the Fall:
  • Autumn-colored leaves; red, yellow, and orange
  • Fall colors before other plants
In the Winter: 
  • Dry, hairy vines
  • Very red leaves

Poison Oak

Poison oak is the second-most common poisonous plant in the U.S. It is prevalent in California, and less so in the Deep South. 

How to identify poison ivy oak and sumac: map
Here are some ways to identify them: 
  • Clusters of 3, 5, or 7 leaves
  • Similar appearance to oak (obviously)
  • Lobed leaves
  • Matte look 
  • Can be shrub or vine
  • Completely hairy
  • Green/yellow/white berries
In the Spring:
  • Light green leaves
  • White-green flowers
In the Summer:
  • Deep green colored plant
  • Red tinged leaves (esp. Around edges)
  • Small berries
In the Fall:
  • Dark berries
  • Typical fall look (yellow, orange, red shrub)
In the Winter:
  • Leafless bush
  • Plain sticks 

Poison Sumac

This is by far the rarest of the three common poisonous plants in the United States. We find this plant only in the swamps and bogs of the South, Midwest, and Northeast US. 

Here are some ways to identify them: 
  • Clusters of 7-13 leaves
  • 5-20 foot tall tree
  • Upward pointing leaves
  • Leaves growing on both sides of stems
  • Spotted leaves
  • Off-white berries
  • Red stems
  • Oblong leaves
  • Can be hairy or smooth
In the Spring:
  • Orange leaves
  • Pale off-white flowers
In the Summer:
  • Deep green leaves
  • Pale off-white flowers
  • Unripe green berries
In the Fall:
  • Autumn-colored leaves (red, yellow, even pink-tinted)
  • Unripe green berries or ripe off-white berries
In the Winter:
  • off-white berries
  • Hanging, empty stems from the tree
  • Chipped bark

PRO TIP: DO NOT throw any of these plants into a fire as fuel. Their oil and contents will burn and come into your eyes, throat, and lungs. Find a better substitute for tinder here and here. If you want to learn how to start your own fire, read “4 Steps You Need to Take Before Starting A Campfire” and “How to Build and Start a Fire“.

Treating Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac:

If by some chance you slipped and fell into a bush of poison ivy, or maybe you misidentified the vines, you should treat it as fast as possible. Follow these steps:

What a typical rash might look like.
  • Move away from the poison ivy/oak/sumac
  • Take off all clothes that touched the plant (preferably with gloves)
  • Wash affected area with soap to try to remove oil irritant
  • To reduce itching, use creams like calamine lotion/hydrocortisone
  • DO NOT USE anesthetic, antihistamine, or antibiotic ointment

For serious cases, rashes that don’t go away in a week, or rashes on sensitive areas, you should see a doctor. 

Encountering Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, or Poison Sumac in the wild is inevitable. But armed with this guide, (hopefully) you can now trek through nature without fear.

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