Now that the weather is warming up, many of us who have been home-based these last few months are venturing outside.

My husband and I did some forest cleaning last week. A couple of days later my arms began itching with a familiar red rash. I knew that I got into poison ivy but hoped that washing with cool water and Dawn dish soap would do the trick.

Apparently not. I wasn’t fast enough, and I am highly allergic!

Leaves of three, let them be, The old wives tale is where the etymology comes from. “Old Wives Tales” are words of wisdom passed down from wives, mothers and grandmothers. They are stories, or snippets of stories, and lessons learned.

Anyone who has experienced poison ivy with its “leaves of three” will want to be able to identify it and avoid it. Poison ivy has a compound leaf with three leaflets. The center leaflet has a petiole (kind-of like a stem), and the two side leaflets do not. The side leaflets usually have lobes that look like mittens; the center leaflet often has two lobes that look like a mitten with two thumbs. I once read that there are 13 varieties of poison ivy found in Missouri. Not all varieties have the lobes, or sometimes the shade leaves (found in deep shade, or at the bottom of the vine) do not have lobes.

It used to be said that poison ivy has a red stem. Do not use this as an identifier. Sometimes it might, but most poison ivy I see does not.

Poison ivy is often confused with Virginia creeper, which has five leaflets. Poison ivy can take on many different forms: a vine, ground cover or even a shrub. When growing up a tree as a vine, it has little hairs that cover the vine and hold the vine very tightly to the tree unlike grape vine that hangs freely from the tree, or Virginia creeper, which does not have the many hairs.

I know two good things about this itchy vine: Deer browse the lush leaves, and at least 75 species of songbirds and other wildlife feast on the clusters of creamy-white waxy berries, which are evident August through November. (That is how it ends up in your garden.) Poison ivy also has brilliant red fall color, especially if in full sun. So does Virginia creeper, so be sure to count the leaflets.

Poison sumac is not found in Missouri or Kansas, and poison oak is very rare in Missouri; found only in four very southern counties, and not found in Kansas. If you think you’ve been exposed to poison ivy, the best thing to do is immediately wash with cool, soapy water. Using hot or warm water will open your pores, making the exposure worse.

While cleaning out your spring gardens, or walking through the woods or even nearby park, enjoy yourself. Take in the fresh air, the wonderful scents, the song of the birds, and walk with the knowledge of what poison ivy looks like so you can avoid it and still enjoy the outdoors.

Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at