Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

On rare occasions 3 = 5.

with 28 comments

Poison Ivy with Five Leaflets 6189

“Leaves of three, let it be,” goes an old adage that’s meant to guide people away from the three “leaves” of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. I put “leaves” in quotation marks because, technically speaking, poison ivy has compound leaves, each of which is normally made up of three leaflets; those three leaflets together comprise one (and only one) leaf.

Now for the word normally in that last sentence: a poison ivy leaf almost always produces three leaflets, but once in a rare while it produces five, as you can confirm in today’s photograph taken in Great Hills Park on April 27th. The picture you saw yesterday of a poison ivy vine climbing a rough-barked tree reminded me of my earlier sighting, which I’d meant to report to you but had forgotten about, so here it is now.

In case you’re wondering, the other leaves on this poison ivy plant had their normal complement of three leaflets.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 30, 2015 at 5:29 AM

28 Responses

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  1. A rare 3=5 sounds like a distinguished grade in the Ivy League.


    September 30, 2015 at 6:07 AM

  2. On my recent trip to the hill country, I found a flower on a flame acanthus bush that had five petals rather than four, and three stamens. I’ll confess I didn’t know I’d found it until I came home and looked at my photos, but there it was, tucked into the middle of a group of normal flowers.

    Oddities like your poison ivy leaflets and the acathus flower may be more common than I’d thought. In only three months, I’ve seen two (including the mutant sunflowers) and now you’ve added a third. It’s like a treasure hunt out there.


    September 30, 2015 at 7:07 AM

    • Probably the best-known anomaly of this type is the four-leaf clover, which even has its own song. Here, then, are verses for poison ivy:

      With leaflets three, let them be,
      But even fives can give you hives.

      I suspect you’re right, and that deviations from the norm are more common than we would have thought. The more attentively we look, the more of them we find (and have fun in discovering them).

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 30, 2015 at 7:17 AM

  3. Amazing timing, Steve. I am in the midst of a raging case of poison ivy!

    kathy henderson

    September 30, 2015 at 11:06 AM

  4. Hey Steve .. Our ivy doesn’t look like this .. Thanks for the pic 😀


    September 30, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    • I figured it didn’t. A house with poison ivy climbing its walls wouldn’t be a safe place to live.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 30, 2015 at 5:37 PM

  5. One has to admit that the plant does have very pretty leaves! (Easy for me to say: I am not allergic to it.)


    September 30, 2015 at 10:03 PM

    • I’m fondest of its leaves when they turn bright colors in the autumn. Fall foliage abounds where you are, but down here we’ll take whatever we can get of it, even on a small scale.

      You’re fortunate to be among the minority not allergic to poison ivy. I may be with you but because I don’t know that for a fact I still act carefully and keep my distance: no point pushing my luck.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 30, 2015 at 10:09 PM

  6. So interesting those 5 leaves. I try to take notice while walking around a local pond- not brushing against it, but will look more closely next time to see if I can find any 5 leafers!


    October 1, 2015 at 5:57 AM

    • In my experience they’re pretty rare, but maybe I haven’t been looking carefully enough. If you find any poison ivy with 5 leaflets, please let us know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 1, 2015 at 5:59 AM

  7. I have noticed this variation also. We are approaching the time of year when PI actually has some discernible appeal.

    Steve Gingold

    October 2, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    • I think you’re the only person I know who’s seen the five-leaflet variation.

      Like you, I look forward to poison ivy’s fall colors.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 2, 2015 at 1:27 PM

      • I have a few favorite spots that include a floor of PI including Mount Pollux and my yard.

        Steve Gingold

        October 2, 2015 at 1:35 PM

        • You have a floor of poison ivy in your yard?

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 2, 2015 at 1:46 PM

          • Got me. The floor is a meadow on Mount Pollux. My yard now is down to a few vines near our pine trees. We’ve pulled the rest. Used to use Roundup until I learned better. Now we yank them and place them where the sun don’t shine…in a plastic bag that goes to the landfill.

            Steve Gingold

            October 2, 2015 at 1:51 PM

            • When you’ve seen a shot of the Holyoke Range or the rising moon from Mount Pollux, it’s a safe assumption that I am up to my ankles in poison ivy.

              Steve Gingold

              October 2, 2015 at 1:52 PM

              • Yikes. You should put that in the text of your posts (or have I missed it?) so that viewers will have even a greater appreciation for what you go through to get your pictures.

                Steve Schwartzman

                October 2, 2015 at 2:21 PM

                • I think I might have mentioned it once. I sort of look at it the same as if I was presenting it to an editor. He or she wouldn’t care what I was standing in…either the image works or it doesn’t.

                  Steve Gingold

                  October 2, 2015 at 2:32 PM

            • I’m relieved to hear it’s not the usual place people designate as “where the sun don’t shine.”

              Steve Schwartzman

              October 2, 2015 at 2:24 PM

  8. Terrifying to contemplate. I thought I knew every single possible variation on the theme of poison ivy, but your two photographs are versions I’ve not seen before.

    Susan Scheid

    October 9, 2015 at 2:25 PM

    • Sorry to have induced double terror in you, Susan. The tree-climbing form with aerial rootlets is common around here. In contrast, a poison ivy leaf with five leaflets is rare.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 9, 2015 at 2:33 PM

      • Actually, I’m glad to be advised so as to be on the look-out. Each summer, I redouble my efforts to escape two things: poison ivy and deer ticks!

        Susan Scheid

        October 9, 2015 at 2:43 PM

        • Fortunately I’ve never had a reaction to poison ivy, and only rarely have I found a tick on me, but chiggers and fire ants are occupational hazards here.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 9, 2015 at 3:02 PM

  9. […] vines, even though Virginia creeper normally has five leaflets and poison ivy three (but check out a post from 2015 showing a rare […]

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