Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Leaves of Three

Poison ivy has three leaflets, the center one has a longer stem.  Leaves have a central vein
with secondary veins branching off from it.  Young leaves are glossy, but older ones are variable
 and leaf margins are all over the place.
After a mild winter in the Mid-Atlantic, it's been a cool, damp spring.  This seems to have brought out a lot of growth in the understory.  Included in this lushness is plenty of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, formerly, Rhus radicans.  As I have been doing some weeding I have been vigilant for ‘leaves of three’, the rhyme for identifying poison ivy.  But that is not the only plant out there that sports three leaflets. 

Following are some common plants that bare some resemblance to the dreaded poison ivy.  Probably the most common look alike in the Mid-Atlantic region is box elder, Acer negundo.  When I first encountered this tree I thought OMG it’s a  poison ivy tree!  This tree reseeds prolifically generating a myriad of seedlings with bright green leaves divided into three leaflets.  While superficially similar to poison ivy, on closer examination you can see that box elder has an opposite arrangement of leaves and branches, while those of poison ivy are alternate.
Box elder has three leaflets that appear very similar to
poison ivy, but branching is always opposite.  Leaf margins are variable
Here they are side-by-side.  Box elder seedling at top has opposite branching,
poison ivy in mid-frame is opposite.  The yellow flowers are green and gold,
  Chrysogonum virginianum.

A close second in my experience is Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia. This rambling and climbing vine has the same habit as poison ivy, but it usually have five leaflets rather than three.  The confusion comes because the younger shoots often sport leaves with three or sometimes four leaflets.  When I spot these I carefully trace the vine back a little ways to see if it also has leaves of five.  Some people have sensitivity to Virginia creeper, but the reaction is not as severe as the rash most people get from poison ivy. 

Virginia creeper is a vine with a similar habit as poison ivy. 
Most, but not all, leaves have 5 leaflets.

Another understory tree that has three leaflets is common hoptree or wafer ash, Ptelea trifoliata. This is not likely to be confused with poison ivy, although seedlings or growth from the base of the tree could cause some concern.  On the hoptree each leaflet does not have a distinct stem (petiolule), rather the leaf tapers sharply to the point of attachment.  While the leaflets of poison ivy are distinct with the central one considerably longer than the two lateral ones.  
Common hoptree grows well in shady locations not unlike poison ivy. 
Note how the leaflets lack distinct stems.

Aromatic sumac, Rhus aromatica, is less commonly encountered.  In the wild it is an upright shrub.  But in the landscape trade there is a shorter, spreading cultivar called ‘Grow Low’ that is becoming very popular.  When I’ve bumped into mine in the woodland edges I froze for a second until I noticed that the leaflets have different lobes and the leaflet stems (petiolules) are all the same length.  On poison ivy the middle leaflet has a longer stem than the other two.

The leaflets of aromatic sumac tend to have rounded lobes concentrated at the tips.

White avens, Geum canadense, has a number of leaf forms.  Some of its basal leaves can have three leaflets but they are not particularly glossy and are generally rough in texture.  Also this species grows in clumps, it is not viney.  

The younger leaves of white avens tend to have three leaflets.  To the lower left you
can see some of the more complex leaf forms.

Barren strawberry, Geum or Waldsteinia fragarioides and the non-native W. ternata, have leaves of three, but the leaf margins are more deeply toothed and the leaflet stems are all very short.
The glossy leaflets of barren strawberry appear to merge together looking
 more like lobes than separate leaflets.

  Mock strawberry, Potentilla  (or Duchesnia) indica, is another prolific ground cover with three leaflets.  It’s leaf margins are regularly toothed and it’s habit is different, spreading by stolons, not vining.  
The leaf surface of mock strawberry is much rougher in appearance than poison ivy.

Golden Alexanders, Zizia aurea, has leaflets that are twice divided, 3 sets of trifoliate leaflets (biternate).  The leaflets are ovate to lanceolate with finely toothed edges.  The long petioles may give the impression of young poison ivy stems.  
Leaflets of golden Alexanders can be seen in the circle at bottom right. 
Also present in this image is Virginia creeper and mock strawberry.

The native clematis, Virgin’s bower, Clematis virginiana, is a weak-stemmed vine with three part leaflets.  While you would want to routinely test the vine strength to distinguish it from poison ivy, an examination of the veins on the leaves would show the difference.  Virgin’s bower has a palmate pattern, with the major veins radiating from a single point; whereas poison ivy’s veins branch out along a central middle vein.  
The ribbed stems of virgin's bower are too weak to support itself
 and it needs something to climb on.

The list of trifoliate plants seems to go on and on.  After I thought I had this pretty well wrapped up I took another look and noticed the leaves of Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema atrorubens, and that reminded me of the trilliums.  These can be recognized by their relatively large leaf size and regular arrangement of leaves.  Arisaema leaves are in a ‘T’ arrangement and those of trilliums are arranged in a regular triangle pattern (120 deg apart).  Can you think of any more poison ivy look-alikes to be on the watch for?