Most of us go out of our way to avoid getting close to poison ivy. No one wants to get the dreaded itchy skin rash and blisters that is caused by contact with the leaves, stems, or roots of this native vine. But, for wildlife, poison ivy is an important food source.
Wildlife Value of Poison Ivy
Although the oil of the poison ivy plant (called urushiol) causes rashes and blisters on humans, there are other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that can eat the plant and its berries, and also use the plant as shelter. A variety of insects feed on the flowers of poison ivy too – from beetles to flies, bees and butterflies.
In the fall, poison ivy produces a white berry. This berry is abundant at a time when many plants are losing their flowers, berries, and even leaves. Many birds including Northern flickers, Bobwhite quail, Eastern phoebes, Cedar waxwings, Woodpeckers, Tufted titmouses, American robins, and others eat these berries in the fall and winter.
White-tailed deer, raccoons, and black bear are able to browse on this plant as well. They will eat the leaves, fruit, and even the stems. Poison ivy as a ground cover or shrub can provide cover for small animals and as a vine, it can act as a path to climb up and down trees for small mammals and lizards.
About Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
This native plant can be found throughout the eastern half of the United States (view a range map by the USDA). It is a common forest plant and grows as a vine, as groundcover and even as a shrub.
“Leaves of three, let it be” is a good tool to use when trying to identify poison ivy. The plant has 3 leaves that may be shiny or matte. The edge of the leaf may be notched or it may be smooth. In fall, the leaves turn a vivid red.
The vines of poison ivy have many fine aerial roots extending from it, making it appear as if it is hairy. In winter when the leaves are gone, this is a good way to identify the vine. Even contact with just the roots of poison ivy can cause a skin rash.
While it is best for humans to avoid contact with this plant, it is a valuable fall and winter food source for wildlife.