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Poison Ivy - Early Childhood Edition

poison ivy
Toxicodendron radicans
The Basics
Poison ivy is a plant.
The plant can take the form of a vine or shrub.
The leaves are compound and arranged alternately (not across from each other) on the stem. There are three leaflets per leaf with the central leaflet on a longer stalk than the other two leaflets.
The leaves may appear to be shiny or oily.
The leaf edges may or may not have a few teeth, but they are never saw-toothed or divided into many scallops.
Leaves turn red, yellow or orange in the fall.
New leaves may also be red or shades of red.
The vine form can be about 60 feet long.
The shrub form may be two to four feet tall.
The plant can also be very short.
Poison ivy grows in every Illinois county.
It lives in fields, woods, along streams and lakes and in disturbed areas.
It makes its own food.
This species blooms from May through July.
Flowers are green-white to white.
Pollinated flowers produce small, white, spherical fruit.
Poison ivy can also spread through vegetative (asexual) reproduction.
Food Source:
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) eat the plants.
Birds and other animals eat the fruits and disperse the seeds in their wastes.

What Else?

  • A chemical, urushiol, in the plant’s sap may cause irritation, a rash and/or swelling in people.
  • All parts of the plant contain urushiol and damaging them may cause the sap to come in contact with people’s skin, but the sap may also be transferred to people indirectly through pet fur or other means. If poison ivy plants are burned, this chemical can be transferred through the air, too. Breathing urushiol is dangerous. Learning to identify poison ivy is key to avoiding contact with it.
  • There are four key traits to identifying poison ivy: compound leaves with three leaflets; each leaf has its own connection to the main stem; alternate leaf arrangement along the stem; no thorns.
  • “Leaves of three, let it be” is a common saying to help you remember what poison ivy’s leaves are like. There are other plants with three leaflets, though, so also look for hairy vines (aerial roots along the vine appear hairlike) and white, spherical fruits.

 Educator Suggestions

​1. Watch the Poison Ivy video podcast with the students. Discuss with them the information shown above and in the video.
2. Look for poison ivy in your neighborhood. Have the students describe its features. Have them look for similarities and differences between this plant and other plants in the neighborhood. They should not touch this plant!
3. Use the information presented above and the following suggestions to help you meet some of the Benchmarks of the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. Please do not be limited by these suggestions or by these Standards. The information can be used in several subject areas.
Goal 11, Learning Standard 11.A: Develop beginning skills in the use of science and engineering practices, such as observing, asking questions, solving problems and drawing conclusions.
Have the students develop questions about poison ivy that were not answered in the text or video. Let them build models or perform experiments to represent their ideas. If applicable, let them test the ideas and collect data. Involve math and computations skills. Describe the results and provide explanations. Because they should not touch poison ivy, students may be limited in their ability to perform experiments.
Students want to know where poison ivy grows in their neighborhood.
Take the students on a walk to look for poison ivy. Before you do so, you and the students should be familiar with what it looks like. Try to incorporate a few different types of habitats on your walk. Urban areas as well as rural habitats will contain poison ivy. If you have a local park or nature area nearby, it will do nicely for this activity, but it is not necessary. Once you find poison ivy, have the students record information about where it is growing: in the sun, partial sun or shade; next to other plants; climbing on trees or other objects; near water; in bare dirt; and other observations that the students may make. Take a photo of the poison ivy plants that you see. When you return to the classroom, host a discussion about the different places that you found poison ivy and the observations that the students made. Can they come to any conclusions about where poison ivy grows?
Goal 12, Learning Standard 12.A: Understand that living things grow and change.
Goal 12, Learning Standard 12.B: Understand that living things rely on the environment and/or others to live and grow.
If possible, have the students observe poison ivy plants in your neighborhood over the course of the school year. An alternative is to take photos of poison ivy plants every month and show the students. Let them compare the changes over time. Have them suggest what resources poison ivy needs to grow and where it is obtaining those resources.
Goal 13, Learning Standard 13.A: Understand rules to follow when investigating and exploring.
Goal 13, Learning Standard 13.B: Use tools and technology to assist with science and engineering investigations.
See the Field Trip Tips Web page for information about taking students on a field trip.
Depending on what questions the students develop and test, they may need to use scientific and technological tools to help them discover the answers.