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In Praise of Poison Oak

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

If your parents didn't teach you to leave the wildflowers alone, then poison oak will.

As I write this, an itchy rash stretches from my chin to my knees in one of the worst outbreaks of poison oak that I’ve had in a long time. I guess it makes sense; spring has arrived and the stuff is leafing with a vengeance along my favorite hiking routes—The Jacksonville Woodlands and the Applegate Ridge Trail. Flaming red and glistening with oil, it’s at its most menacing right now. Although I tread the trails like tightropes, my dog is less mindful. I’m now pay the price of nuzzling his warm fur a little too much.

The plant’s offending oil is called Urushiol. The substance itself does not cause the burning, but instead tricks your immune system into regarding your own skin as the enemy. I medicate this madness with a regime of Cortisone creams and Calamine, Clariton and Benadryl, and rash-soothing soaks that have my bathtub drain clogged with oatmeal.

In spite of all of this, I am grateful for poison oak.

Although it’s tempting to regard the plant as some evil intruder, the truth is, poison oak is perfectly native. Terrible as it is, it has a legitimate role in the landscape, providing food and habitat for many insects, reptiles and deer. It also outcompetes many invasive species that would otherwise take over.

Science-talk aside, there is one quality of poison oak that I especially love. Come spring when our many native wildflowers blossom along the trails, poison oak stands as a protective barrier—deterring off-trail tramplers and errant wildflower pickers. In fact, right now, the Frittilaria (endemic to our region) is in its full glory. Most of the red blooms are nestled right amid patches of poison oak. You’d be crazy to venture off trail and try to pick one.

Yet, some people do. Every spring, I come across at least a few bouquets smashed along the trail, which for some reason has an outsized emotional effect on me (It’s a wonder I can get through a day in this world!). Maybe I'd feel less sad if the bouquet had been gifted to a friend, or enjoyed in a vase on a dinner table; the act of love would be a small redemption for the plundering.

But picking the blooms only to drop them symbolizes something less-than-wonderful about our human species: the way we sometimes seize beauty, only to discard it.

And so, I’m grateful for the way poison oak stands sentinel over our rare wildflowers and minimizes our intrusions. If your parents did not teach you to leave the wildflowers alone, then poison oak will. It makes me wonder if there is a sort of morality in nature. Not to anthropomorphize plants. But sometimes in their efforts to thrive, they do send a clear message.

As does my itchy rash. Off for another oatmeal bath.

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