How to Limit Your Families Exposure To Poison-Oak

How to Limit Your Families Exposure To Poison-Oak - Toxicodendron diversilobum

It was late winter in 2013 we were having a beautiful weekend, the first warm sun after weeks of rain and fog. I was driving up US-1 near Davenport near a favored spot by local bush-crafters to harvest willow canes for making baskets. With a big basket in hand a young women in her early-twenties, wearing a sleeveless summer dress, she looked like she should have been shopping at Nordstrom, with her bare arms and legs she was reaching through the leafless bush, clipping, and gathering only the longest thinnest twigs, it was a pretty picture, I pulled over. Not why most would think.

Brian: “Good morning.”
Young Lady: “Good morning, it’s a beautiful day.”
Brian: “It is. Sorry to disturb you. I was just curious what you were doing.”
Young Lady: “I am a 6th grade teacher and going to make baskets with my students. I was told this pull out was a good place to collect willow.”
Brian “It is. Where are you from?
Young Lady: “San Francisco, but grew up in Orange and earned my teaching credential from CSU Fullerton last year.”
Brian “Cool, You ever make baskets before?”
Young Lady: “Yes, in class I made this one.”
Brian: “It’s beautiful. Have you done much hiking in our open space?
Young Lady: “Not really, why”
Brian: “You’re from Fullerton, so you have probably been to Hillcrest Park.”
Young Lady: “I have it was a favorite spot.”
Brian: “Mine too, I grew up there. Do you remember the bush that surrounds the parking lot their?”
Young Lady: “Yes, poison oak.”
Brian: I bit my lip and waited.
Young Lady: “Are you sh*****g me.”
Brian: “You might want to harvest the willow over there and not the poison-oak”
Young Lady: Sheepishly “Poison Oak?
Brian: Still in disbelieve, I pointing down to the few little leaves just breaking bud “Leaves of three…” She finished the rhyme. I gave her my card, a lesson in poison-oak identification in our biome, and let her wash up and left her with.

Poison-Oak is a Big Problem

Poison-oak is abundant throughout the Pacific Coast and is likely found in oak, Douglas fir, redwood forests, and commonly growing with blackberries. It is a beautiful plant that unfortunately can give 80% of the population a very good reason to become experts on identifying this plant. In the early days of me running camps on occasion I would have staff need to take time off for poison-oak, have had campers not return a 2nd or 3rd week because of the rash, and have had the parents of the kids develop the rash from contact from their kids clothing. California Conservation Corps and California Dept. of Forestry estimate that 10% of the total lost time is due to poison-oak. The monetary cost to the state of California is approximately one percent of the state’s workers’ compensation budget.

Poison-Oak New Leaves

How to Identify Poison-Oak

Poison oak is abundant throughout the north end of Mexico, whole of California, most of Oregon, the west of Washington, Arizona, and Nevada. Is likely found in oak, Douglas fir, redwood forests, and commonly growing with blackberries. The young lady above was intelligent just unaware of poison oaks chameleon properties. The first thing I do with new people is point out what poison-oak looks like on that day in the biome we are in. In the forest it climbs trees to get to sunlight it may go under the bark and reappearing to yards up to dangle from the lateral limbs. It may be a tangle of trunks surrounding a dead or dying tree. I have seen it completely hide a boulder the size of a house with a trunk as big as my thigh. It may be impenetrable hedge, a scrub, or prostrate vine. If it is among the willows it looks like willow, in blackberry it morphs to look like blackberry, it climbs trees many yards under the bark to emerge above and dangle down from the lateral wood; this is an insidious behavior in winter when it is just lifeless twigs coming out of an oak tree. Near the ocean it will have small leathery leaves under the redwood canopy delicate leaves as big as my hand. As I see changes in the seasons I point out to our students what the changes look like, but all stages of the plant can be seen at any time of the year. A person may know what it looks like in one stage of the year but not in others, or how it grows in their home area but not in the area they are hiking in. In spring in the coldest places of the north coast the leaf bud may not have opened and it may just be a patch of nondescript upright straight smooth stems where the deer feed on it each year keeping it no taller than a foot or two. It may be leafless twigs coming out of the bark of an oak or redwood tree. In warmer areas the leaves may have broken open already and are a shiny bronze. Later in spring a glossy green. When the summer comes, the leaves change to yellow green to reddish hue, and finally turning bright red or pink during the fall.

We have a very respectable database of photos of poison oak, but only for the Pacific North Coast. For photos of poison oak for other regional photos of poison oak as well as the other urushiol producing sumacs see

"Poison-oak grows as a dense leafy shrub in the open or in filtered sun. In shaded areas it becomes a tall-climbing vine. Leaflets are blunt-tipped in groups of three, from ½ inch to 4 inches long, with scalloped, toothed, or lobed edges. The center leaf of the cluster resembles an oak leaf. Western poison-oak grows along the Pacific Coast from New Mexico to Canada. Eastern poison-oak ranges from New Jersey to Florida and from central Texas to Kansas. Smoke from burning plants carries irritating oleoresin and can cause serious reactions"
—Wildland Firefighting Magazine
"Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and full use of senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of the confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy; a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace."
—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods