Toxicodendron diversilobum. Until October 2015, poison oak was just another plant with the potential of causing minor irritation to me.
Having grown up in Colorado I had trained my eyes to look for stinging nettle and poison ivy, and though I have had many a run in with stinging nettle, it was nothing a little rubbing alcohol couldn’t cure. So when I first began adventuring in the Northwest woods, a stronghold of poison oak, I kept a weary, albeit lazy, eye out for this unfamiliar, lurking nemesis.
Poison oak grows ubiquitously throughout Oregon, west of the Cascades. It is found in the ponderosa shrub forests, amongst the chaparral shrubs, in the shade of the oaks, and along the coast. Its growth form ranges from a trailing vine, reaching high for the sun, to a short and
spindly pseudo-shrub, to a robust grouping of groping, poison stems. Poison oak leaves resemble those of oak in their lobed appearance, and one can recall the foreboding “Leaves of three, leave it be” when setting out for a romp in the woods. Spring and summer will present a display of small flowers and white fruits, called drupes. Starting in early fall, bright green leaves begin to turn a sunset orange-red hue and by early November, they have fallen.
A poison oak rash, when it’s bad, is really, really bad. It’s not just an itch. It’s not just a burn. It’s some terrible concoction of the two that begs to be scratched, rubbed, and iced. It makes you moan in agony as you search the depths of your memory for when you got the few drops of the not-so-innocuous oil on your right wrist and left cheekbone.
The oily sap of poison oak, or urushiol, causes mild to severe contact dermatitis on the areas of skin it touches. And much to the chagrin of the outdoor enthusiast, trace amounts of the oil can stay on surfaces for days, weeks, months, even years, waiting for a touch of naked skin. Urushiol is found in all parts of the poison oak plant –living or dead—including leaves, stems, and roots. In fact, when poison oak is burned, the oils volatilize and can cause severe allergic reactions in the lungs of those who inhale the smoke.
Interestingly enough, poison oak is a popular browse for Pacific black-tailed deer and range livestock, as it is rich in phosphorous, calcium, and sulfur, and does not evoke the painful allergic reaction seen in humans. In Native American cultures various parts of the plant were used; both as a basket textile and medicinal herb. Popular American folklore even claims that drinking the milk of a goat that has eaten poison oak will render the drinker immune to the unpleasant consequences of interacting with the plant.
My doctor told me I had very likely picked the oils up from my dog’s fur. And unfortunately, I do not own a milking goat that eats poison oak. After a heavy two week dose of Prednisone and numerous washes with Tecnu©, my face and wrist were home free, but my mind remains a prisoner of this plant.
Yet, like we all must, I continue the trek into the unknown. I do my best to keep an eye out for this formidable plant, but am reminded that even the best intentions can still procure unwanted results. In my quest to make meaning out of all things unfortunate, here is what I learned from poison oak: be grateful for the health you have, because even a few small drops of oil can temporarily take it from you; be patient, even the greatest temptations, like scratching, are sometimes best left alone; and finally, love those that love you for you, because only true love can still kiss someone with puffy, splotchy eyelids and a red, swollen cheek.