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poison ivy plant

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can be found just about everywhere, including backyards, parks, fields, wetlands, along streams, along the side of the road, and in the woods. So it's no surprise that children and poisonous plants often collide, and this collision can lead to an itchy rash and a very miserable kid. To avoid this scenario, learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac look like and where in the U.S. they're typically found.

Poison Ivy

You may have heard the saying, "Leaves of three, let it be," and that's a good place to start. Poison ivy has three leaflets, or leaf-like parts growing off of a single stem. (That's what's pictured here.) These leaflets tend to be jagged and pointed on top. "Look for a dull, waxy sheen on the leaves," says Parents advisor Jody A. Levine, M.D., director of dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC. This is urushoil, the toxic substance that causes the rash. "Poison ivy is very good at camouflaging itself to blend in with the plants around it," says Dr. Levine. The leaves can be shiny green but can change to orange-red with hints of yellow in the fall. Western poison ivy (which grows as a shrub) can be found almost anywhere in the continental U.S. (excluding California and a handful of southeastern states), whereas Eastern poison ivy (which grows as a rope-like vine) sticks to the east coast, the Midwest, and some southern and western states. Both versions can produce green or yellow flowers and white to green-yellow or amber berries.

Poison Oak

Just as with poison ivy, you're looking for leaflets grouped in threes. But since lots of plants fit this description and don't cause a reaction when touched, you need to also look for leaflets that are fuzzy and more jagged around the edges than ivy and have a waxy sheen, a sign of urushiol oil. Poison oak grows as a low shrub or vines, changes colors like other foliage, and can yield clusters of green-yellow or white berries. Also broken up into two categories, Pacific poison oak is usually found along the west coast, and Atlantic poison oak lives in the southeastern states.

Poison Sumac

This poisonous plant has anywhere from seven to 13 leaflets per branch and takes on a fern-like appearance. The oval-shaped leaflets travel up the reddish stem in pairs and just like ivy and oak, have a dull, waxy sheen due to the urushiol oil. The plant can grow as a tall shrub or small tree, change colors with the seasons, and sometimes produces glossy pale yellow or cream-colored berries. Sumac's favorite haunts are swamps and bogs, and the plant tends to set up shop along nearly the entire east coast, parts of the Midwest, and in a handful of southern states.

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