Poison Oak Epidemia

If you learn to identify only one species of plant living around here, please let it be poison oak. The persistent torment, itching, burning, and scars caused by contact with this horrid, but otherwise benign-looking plant would not be wished on the worst of enemies.

Poison oak has the unfortunate habit of growing to look like a whole lot of things — vines commonly creep along the ground and around ankles, crawl up tree trunks to send down trailers at eye-level, or grow to become beastly, entangling shrubbery. In fact, the old saying goes, “leaves-of-three, let it be,” but that usually includes about half the plants that will inevitably have you surrounded. Poison oak’s leaves-of-three are actually pinnately compound deciduous leaflets, so every group of three you see is actually one leaf. Lots of other perfectly friendly plants have these, such as the leaves on young blackberries.

Poison oak leaves range widely in size, color and shininess. The margins, or edges of leaflets are irregularly lobed — smooth and sort of lumpy — not jagged, pointy, prickly, or fuzzy. Leaflets on the same plant are likely to look different from one another.

Every single part of the plant possess the irritating chemical cocktail it produces, and it remains present year-round. Contact with leaves, roots, stems, flowers, or fruits at any time of year can cause irritation – even second-hand, months later.  So do be mindful of last season’s work boots and garden tools.

Even petting a friendly dog that’s just walked through a patch of the stuff is more than enough for many people to develop symptoms. If anyone ever tempts you with tales of immunity to poison oak developed by any means of ingesting the plant – they are not your friend. While you’re at it, do not touch, consume, or inhale any part of this plant.

Some individuals seem to be able to frolic through patches of poison oak without so much as an itch — good for freaking them. For the rest of us though, there is some hope in the form of Tecnu, a highly effective “outdoor skin cleanser” by Tec Laboratories, Inc. of Albany.

Forestry folks, farmers, hikers, outdoor hobbyists, home gardeners, and even journalists all over the Willamette Valley have been saved countless cubic centimeters of skin cells, and innumerable hours of needless suffering thanks to that stuff. If you’re headed out into the great wild these coming warm months, you’re going to want to be packing some.

Also, watch where you step.

By Matthew Hunt