Leaves of three, let them be! So many of us have heard the old wives tale.

Actually, this 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 in the future. 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 different varieties of poison ivy found in Midwest. Not all varieties have lobes, or sometimes the shade leaves (found in deep shade, or at the bottom of the vine) do not have lobes. Some will say 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, a ground cover, or even as a shrub. When growing up a tree as a vine, it has little hairs that cover the vine and holds 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 am visiting my daughter in Florida where they have poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. You do not have to be in the woods to experience poison ivy. In her backyard, poison ivy is growing straight up from the ground under trees. My two little granddaughters, ages 3 and 5, call this area “Stick Kingdom.” This used to be their favorite place to play; unfortunately, since poison ivy was discovered, they are no longer allowed in Stick Kingdom, much to their dismay.

There are two good things I know about this itchy vine, deer browse the lush leaves, and at least 75 different species of songbirds and other wildlife feast on the clusters of creamy-white waxy berries, which are evident in the fall. Poison ivy also has brilliant red fall color, especially if in full sun. So does Virginia creeper, so be sure to count the leaflets.

While some find this hard to believe, 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, not better.

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

Reach Lynn Youngblood at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.