Wildlife Wednesday 06/05/2024

Leaves of three, let it be. It’s #WildlifeWednesday and we are talking about poison ivy.

Poison ivy is a common perennial vine or small shrub found in woodlands, fields, pastures, home landscapes, and a variety of other habitats throughout Ohio. The plant has compound leaves with three leaflets (hence the adage), the stalk of the middle leaflet much longer than the stalks of the side leaflets. 

Young plants start in the spring with orange or red-tinged leaves. As the plants mature into the summer, their leaves turn green and they will produce small white flowers. In late summer they produce toxic green berries that turn white in the fall as they ripen. The plant’s fall coloration is shades of bright yellow, orange, and red. And finally in the winter the vine appears “hairy” after the leaves have fallen off. The “hairs” are the rootlets of the plant, which allow it to climb and spread. The plant is poisonous year-round and should not be touched with bare skin during any of these phases.

Since the plant lacks thorns or woody protective tissue it uses a chemical deterrent to protect itself from predators like beetles, slugs, and caterpillars. Urushiol is the oily component that causes an allergic skin reaction in about 90 percent of humans who come in contact with it. Symptoms including itchiness, swelling, a painful rash, and fluid-filled blisters can appear from a few hours to days after exposure and last for an average of two weeks.

If you come into contact with poison ivy, rinse your skin with cool water as soon as possible. Wash all clothing and other items that may have come into contact with it as well, such as gardening tools, camping gear, and pets. While pets generally will not be affected the oil can remain in their fur and cause exposure. Antihistamines, anti-itch creams, and cold compresses can be used for relief. A doctor should be contacted in extreme cases where the individual has severe infection, fever, and/or difficulty breathing.

While humans do their best to avoid poison ivy at all costs, the plant is a valuable food source for many wild animals. Mammals such as white-tailed deer, black bears, muskrats, and rabbits eat the leaves and stems while a wide array of birds including woodpeckers and songbirds eat the berries.

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