Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Poison Ivy: A Winter Study

Mention poison ivy and most people cringe in disgust. Believe me I understand. Two summers ago I unknowingly touched poison ivy and got my first ever case of intense itchiness, which lasted a good month. An agonizing experience I don't care to repeat.


Most people fear this itch master, but this plant offers a lot of value to wildlife. Berry loving birds thrive on it. Bees are attracted to the blooms. Several mammals browse the foliage and 15 species of moths either host or use it to protect their larvae while they pupate.

This productive plant produced dense clusters of fruit in summer months that are eaten by over 60 species of birds, including bluebirds, woodpeckers, warblers, robins, chickadees, tufted titmouse, cedar waxwings, flickers and eastern phoebe. Not only does poison ivy service birds but deer, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, and if you live in an agricultural area, goats, browse the foliage, twigs and berries.


While hand clearing invasive species from our woods, I came across some very well-establish poison ivy climbing up a towering tree. Just look at the breadth of those vines.


The vines cling so securely they almost seem to be part of the tree. Climbing poison ivy uses trees (or any upright structure) as a means to reach the sun. And these vines are champion climbers, growing until they run out of vertical surface to hold on to. Limbs can extend out as far as 8 feet, often appearing to be part of the tree.


Examine the photo above and below and take a close look at all those limbs. None belong to the tree. They are all lateral limbs from the vine!


Poison ivy is probably most recognized by its leaf pattern but can be easily identified in winter when all the aerial roots are exposed (not covered with foliage). The adventitious roots give the appearance of a fuzzy rope twining up the tree trunk when in fact they are holding the vine steadily in place.


While I admit this is a tough plant to love, its value to wildlife is unquestionable, the diversity of birds it attracts is huge, and the stunning fall color is supreme. This is reason enough for me to keep this mammoth vine. Now, I just need to remember to enjoy all it has to offer from a safe distance.

For an introduction to Poison Ivy and tips on identifying this plant be sure to visit The Infinite Spider.

16 comments:

  1. I would never have looked at that vine and thought it was poison ivy. I haven't had much experience with it so I had no idea that it was a vine at all - I always assumed it was a low growing plant.

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    1. Well, it's probably a good thing you haven't had too much experience with this plant. It does come in a low growing form, vine and as a shrub, which makes it tricky to identify sometimes.

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  2. I know I can't remove all of the poison ivy in our new lot, so we will have a delicate balance....some but not in my way.

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    1. Delicate balance is a good way to put it Janet. I can't have it growing where the dogs like to play because that would be dangerous for me. Keeping it on the back side of our property is more helpful for the wildlife and me.

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  3. I've often thought that the best security fence in the world would be made of living poison ivy, well labeled! It IS a marvelous plant for wildlife - thanks for pointing that out.

    In Kansas, poison ivy takes 3 forms: low-growing forb in the understory, shrub up to 10' tall (usually in full sun), and vine. A tricky plant, but the adventitious roots are a good giveaway, as are the leaves and white berries.

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    1. We find all three forms in Georgia too. I think the vine is easiest to manage for balance in the garden. Shrubs and forbs would be a disaster for me with our dogs running around and rubbing against me. A fence out of poison ivy, now there's an idea!

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  4. Wow, I've never seen a vine that impressively big before! I never used to be allergic to poison ivy and so never bothered to learn what it looked like - until I weeded my yard one day and ended up with a horrendous case of it. Now I'm always on alert for it!

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    1. It's interesting how some people are immune and others have such a severe reaction to urushiol. I got my first case pulling English ivy out of my sister's garden. I learned that poison ivy often grows in the same area as Virginia Creeper, Honeysuckle and English Ivy so its tricky to see sometimes. Like you, I'm always on the lookout now if I'm working in a densely planted or overgrown area.

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  5. I certainly learned something about poison ivy! I had no idea it could be a vine with such an impressive trunk. Wow! It's huge. Thank goodness I have never had a run in with it.

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    1. You're lucky Jennifer. We have a lot of disturbed space on our property from years of agricultural use followed by development which is an open invitation for this plant. However, it also brings back wildlife to this environment which is a good start to land restoration.

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  6. We had a vine like that right behind my house until last year. The problem was it making seedlings in the garden. I am very lucky not to be allergic, but the neighbors took down the tree, now the mother plant is gone. I do suspect, daughters will be rampant though. The berries and colorful leaves are beautiful in Fall. You are right, wildlife benefits.

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    1. Birds do a good job dispersing the seed and it does reproduce easily. I already notice two nearby trees have vines on it. I am looking forward to seeing the gorgeous foliage on this vine come fall.

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  7. Great info on its benefits for wildlife. I've seen poison ivy with trunks like that and shuddered at its magnificent strength. Thankfully I've yet to experience an allergic reaction! I'm assuming you didn't try to remove that big stuff, did you? :-)

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    1. No, It's staying up for the wildlife. It's far enough from the house that I don't need to worry about the dogs getting into it and inadvertently affecting me.

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  8. I give it a wide berth as well and have to be careful everywhere now as it sneaks into all areas of the garden. We do pull it but I know it is of great value...so it grows in the meadow as a well established vine on one of our trees there....probably why it is found all over...those birds love the berry and hang out in the garden after eating.

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  9. Poison ivy grows everywhere here, with those great hairy vines. At least it has wildlife value and good fall color. I am allergic to it, and even DH, who had no reaction to it when we moved here, is allergic to it as well. I always keep a tube of steroid around just in case!

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