“Leaves Of Three, Let Them Be”, right?… Not Necessarily!

I have a yard that backs up to woods. While I’ve been trying to landscape in the yard, the back of it has a steep hill and, well, I haven’t really gotten to that yet. Needless to say, I find all kinds of things growing that I didn’t plant there. Some of them are pleasant surprises, like the Joe-pye weed, wild asters, black-eyed Susans and daisies. Others, on the other hand, are not so pleasant.

A couple of years ago, I found a plant growing in the yard… and it was EVERYWHERE! I freaked out because the leaves were in sets of three. The only plant that I knew of that fit that description was poison ivy!

“Just grab a bottle of Roundup,” people told me. “That’ll take care of it!”

There is one major problem with that solution. Part of gardening for wildlife means eliminating harmful chemicals in the yard. I could manually pull some of it if I was careful, but a whole yard of it?

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

I was trying to figure out my strategy for dealing with the problem and do it in a way that was the least harmful to wildlife and…well…me, when I noticed something. Growing on the plant were red berries. Wait! Doesn’t poison ivy have white berries?

Now I was really confused. I decided to ask some of my gardening friends at work. Sure enough, one of my coworkers knew what I was talking about.

“That’s not poison ivy,” she said. “I think that’s fragrant sumac.”

We looked it up on the internet to verify it with some photos. Yep! That’s my plant! I would have never guessed that it was anything other than poison ivy. All those plants that I saw right off of the trail at the local conservation center that I thought were poison ivy were, in fact, fragrant sumac as well. And, I’ve since learned, that it’s even sold at native plant sales!

The following descriptions are taken from Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri by Don Kurz put out by the Missouri Department of Conservation to help you differentiate the two:

Fragrant Sumac
fragrant sumac
Poison Ivy
poison ivy
Appearance: Thicket-forming shrub to 8 feet, branches vary from ascending to lying on the ground. Poisonous, a vine to 60 feet high, trailing or climbing by aerial roots; or a low, upright shrub.
Flowers: Late March-April, flowers usually appearing before leaves at the ends of twigs in clusters, flowers small, yellowish-green. May-June, in clusters on new growth of stems, flowers small, greenish-white, fragrant.
Fruit: May-July, globe-shaped, red, hairy with simple or gland-tipped hairs. August-November, in grapelike clusters, creamy-white, waxy, globe-shaped, smooth or rarely sparsely hairy.
Leaves: Alternate, three-leaved, fragrant when crushed, leaflets without stalks, short stalked, egg-shaped, tip pointed to rounded, margin lobed or coarsely toothed; upper surface dark yellow-green, dull or shiny, with or without hairs; lower surface pale, smooth to densely hairy; leaf stalk about 1 inch long. Alternate, three leaflets, variable in shape and size; end leaflet stalk 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches long; side leaflets with unequal sides; blades mostly oval to lance-shaped, tip pointed (end leaflet with a more pronounced pointed tip), margin entire, largely toothed, or lobed; upper surface dull green, smooth; lower surface paler, with varying degrees of hairiness; leaf stalk 2 1/2 to 6 inches long, hairy.
Stems: Slender, flexible, brown, hairy to smooth later. Light brown, hairy, pores raised, climbing by aerial rootlets. Stems trail until finding support or when lacking support often assuming an erect shrublike posture, often with single stems.
Remarks: Although superficially resembling the related poison ivy, fragrant sumac does not cause dermatitis. It is readily distinguished by a shorter or absent stalk on the middle leaflet and by its hairy, reddish fruits. An oil found in all parts of the plant is poisonous and produces an intense skin irritation. Upon contact with the skin this oil produces blisters, accompanied by intense itching and burning. Washing immediately after contact with cold, soapy water is the best treatment.

Both plants are an important food source for wildlife, although I don’t recommend having poison ivy in your yard. All the photos above were taken in my yard. The fragrant sumac I will let grow if it’s in a suitable place. The poison ivy I will have to remove. I try to get to it when it’s small and will use gloves over a plastic bag to remove it. I will then wash up immediately after removing the plant.

I hope this helps you at least get a better idea of what poison ivy looks like versus fragrant sumac. If in doubt, though, always treat it with caution. Happy Gardening! 🙂


What’s Happening in the Yard?

tiger swallowtail on lilac

A tiger swallowtail on my lilac bush.

The weather has been crazy here in Missouri the past two weeks! Last week felt like June with highs in the 80’s. The heat wouldn’t have bothered me, but the air was so thick with pollen, that I was forced to retreat indoors and turn on the air conditioner just so I could breath. This week felt like March. It has been so cold and wet (we’ve had some frost advisories) that I had to turn the furnace back on!  As a result, I didn’t get out in the yard much and had to resort to watching things happen from my patio door.

What have I seen? Well…

The female bluebird has made a new nest in the nest box. I’m not sure if she has eggs yet. I will have to get out there to check. Occasionally, I see her first brood in the trees. The male often stops at my raisin feeder to take some snacks back to his youngsters. He splits his time between watching after them and checking to see if the female is okay.

The gray treefrogs are FINALLY singing near my pond! I was concerned that the harsh winter we had this year had negatively impacted their population. This cold week has quieted them down though and I’m still waiting for the toads to show up.

frog in windchimes2

A gray treefrog sitting on one of the pipes of my windchimes, of all places!

The hummingbirds have been fighting over the sugar feeder. I noticed some webs hanging from one of the female’s feet, so I’ll TRY to see if I can locate her nest. They can be hard to spot though and, so far, I haven’t had any luck finding one.

I saw a pair of yellow-billed cuckoos in the trees a couple of days ago, but my camera wasn’t strong enough to focus in on them. Hopefully they’ll come around again, because there are more tent worms for them to snack on.

A flock of cedar waxwings dropped by yesterday and were hanging out in the back of my yard. Again, they were a little too far for my camera! I’m not sure what they were after though. This was the first time I spotted them in my yard. They looked like they may have been eating something off of the sumac bushes, but I can’t be sure.

I did manage to get to a native plant sale on Saturday where I purchased a few new plants for my yard, and I was able to get them into the ground before all the rain hit.


Some bee balm that I bought at the native plant sale.

house finch

I heard something behind me after I took a photo of the bee balm. This house finch was only a couple of feet from me!

It was hard to stay inside though, and I occasionally got outside with the camera to take some photos. I just couldn’t stay out for very long.

rain on leaves

Rain droplets on some leaves.


Mushrooms are popping up all over the place!


My columbine is in full bloom.


A caterpillar.

Everything is growing like crazy and all of the little animals are so busy raising families. Hopefully, my allergies and the weather will ease up so I can work/play out in the yard more in the coming weeks. 🙂

~ This entry was written in response to the Blog Your Block Challenge.