Leaflets 3, Let It Be?

Happy July 4th to all who are celebrating!

I will probably be celebrating with one of my favorite chores in the garden–weeding–which is why I chose this post topic.

I was originally going to make it a post about the importance of knowing the difference between the two native vines, Virginia Creeper (parthenocissus quinquefolia) and poison ivy (toxicodendron radicans). (Yes, poison ivy is a native and its berries are an important wildlife food source–that’s why it keeps appearing all over your gardens and mine!)

It is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that poison ivy causes a nasty rash in the majority of folks who come into contact with it. Also, poison ivy can contaminate anything it touches and the oil can linger anywhere from a year to up to 5 years and can re-infect the gardener that way.

But poison ivy seedlings are a little hard to identify–and there are a lot of mimics. The best case is to treat everything as if it is poison ivy, of course, and proceed with caution.

Still, you can save yourself a lot of heartache if you can recognize the different plants and keep ones that might be valuable to you. So here’s something that might help.

The first is the saying, above: Leaflets 3, let it be. That means that poison ivy has 3 leaves. But as you’ll soon see from my photos, so do a lot of other harmless plants when they are seedlings–and even larger plants. That’s okay. If in doubt, treat them as if they are poison ivy until you can positively identify them, particularly if you are sensitive.


This is a true poison ivy seedling. It’s very innocuous. It hardly looks like something that would make you want to rip your skin off.


But when we talk about “leaflets 3” here we have a 3 leafed plant that is definitely NOT poison ivy. It’s an alpine strawberry. Not something you would want to necessarily weed out. You can see how tiny this is by the acorn cap next to it.


Here’s another tri-lobed weed (again, notice the tiny size–I really had to hunt for this stuff!).  Weeder beware? Well, yes, but not of rashes. This is a maple seedling. I don’t want this to get too much bigger or it will be difficult to remove.

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Finally, you can tell this is nothing dangerous, even though it’s vining, because I have obviously picked it up and moved it. This is a Virginia Creeper vine at the beginning. I actually ripped a piece off to show that at the start, its “leaflets” are 3 lobed and not 5 lobed. So it can be a poison ivy mimic at times.


This is mature Virginia Creeper. It should look nothing like poison ivy to you. It doesn’t to me. We have it on a wood pile, climbing the trunks of a few pine trees, and here, on this stone wall, under a dogwood in places.

Despite the 5 leaflets, I can’t tell you how many neighbors have asked me to “please get rid of the poison ivy” on my trees. I’ve had to patiently explain that it isn’t poison ivy and tell them the “leaflets 3” rule. Every time a house sells, I go through this all over again.

And if we get help for a spring or fall clean-up, the Virginia Creeper inevitably gets removed as “poison ivy.” I know they think they are doing us as favor. Luckily the stuff is tough as nails and the birds bring some back for us within a year or two.

So for your own sake, and safety’s sake, learn the difference as you weed. It can make the difference between having some lovely native vines and a nasty itchy rash!

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