Anyone with a desire to wander in the woods should learn to differentiate between Virginia creeper and poison ivy. These tricksters grow alongside one another in woods, fields and along roadsides and riverbeds, and both have dark green leaves that turn red in the fall. Virginia creeper holds respectable status as a native ground cover, while poison ivy is known as the “scourge of summer.”
“People get Virginia creeper and poison ivy mixed up because they look so similar-the leaves look alike, and they grow in the same environments,” said Christine Bock, lead horticulturist at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn. “We have Virginia creeper planted in at the Aquarium, and I have had to convince some visitors that we have not planted poison ivy in our exhibits.”
Poison ivy’s problematic status stems from its production of urushiol, an oil found within the sap of the plant that causes contact dermatitis in most people who touch it. Virginia creeper, on the other hand, does NOT contain urushiol.
Urushiol is present in all parts of the plant: the leaves, stems, flowers and berries – even the dense, hairy aerial roots that climb trees contain urushiol. Exposure to 50 micrograms of urushiol (less than one grain of table salt) will develop a rash in 80 to 90 percent of adults. Exposure leads to skin blistering within one to 12 hours, and rashes last about two weeks.
A quick leaf count is the easiest way to differentiate between the two plants: Virginia creeper has five leaves in a group, as opposed to poison ivy’s three.
Poison ivy does have some redeeming qualities. Its cluster of white, waxy fruits are of particular benefit to wildlife. At least 60 species of birds are reported to eat poison ivy’s white berries. Deer also browse the fruits and foliage, cottontail rabbits feed on the twigs and bark, and its flowers are frequented by bees.
Virginia Creeper’s indigo berries also serve as an important food source for migrating birds in the fall; however, the berries are toxic to humans. Thirty species of wildlife eat the berries, including many fruit-loving birds. Virginia creeper is also the larval host plant for several species of moth, including the Virginia creeper sphinx.
Understanding what’s what in the woods can make the difference between summertime misery or fun. Before stepping into a patch of green, remember this: Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive.
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