Living with Poison Oak: Keys to Identifying this Forest Menace

Wade Truex
16 Min Read

As we left our home in the city, where my beautiful wife, our well-mannered children, and I spent the last eight years of our lives, I felt happier than ever before. When we purchased the home, we were fortunate to get an excellent deal, considering the three thousand-plus square feet in the heart of one of the most sought-after districts in our fair city. As a bonus, we had a gigantic cedar tree that was a city heritage landmark.

We were in love, at first, with the space that we had. Because we had five children at home, we never had individual rooms for everyone until now, which was an added treat for the kids. We were close to libraries, shopping, parks, and even our places of business. It seemed too good to be true, and of course, it was.

Poison oak bush in early spring.
Poison oak bush in early spring.

Although we got the place for a nice price, we were spending the majority of our income on the mortgage. Like many Americans in the mid-2000s, we overbought. Due to our limited cash flow, I became the full-time contractor for painting, plumbing, carpentry, roofing and gutters, carpet, and even electrical. (While living there, I eventually became a licensed electrician and my homeowner experience definitely helped make that possible.) Our historic beauty was built in 1885, so it was high maintenance, to say the least. I was spending all of my free time working on general upkeep of our home. I wanted out. We longed for the fresh country air and the call of the forest. The search began for a place in the hills, and within a few years, we fell in love once again.

Golden Valley was a name that I had always found enticing. As a child growing up in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, I had driven on the road called Golden Valley many times. Its steep slopes and winding curves seemed forbidding, but called to me. I wondered how these people could live in such a place without standing out on the roadside and waving happily to every passerby, or smiling ear to ear as they jumped for joy at their great fortune. But they remained calm, some quietly tending their gardens, others driving their tractors with bucket-loads of dirt, horse manure, or rock to spread on their farmland. We were about to be neighbors, and it seemed almost supernatural.

The move was a terrible experience, but we persevered with our country home in our sights. I remember early trips with our trusty pickup when we had planned to move two or three loads after work, but after one load I would stand mouth agape like a kid looking at the gates of Disneyland at our new hillside that was happily crowded with the densest stand of Douglas firs that I had ever seen. Needless to say, not a lot of work was getting done.

Twigs of poison oak with the first signs of the infamous "leaves of three".
Twigs of poison oak with the first signs of the infamous “leaves of three”.

After the other house sold, the new owners wanted to move in quickly, so we were forced to get a large rental truck to help us clear out the place. In true Chevy Chase style, I learned that a 28-foot rental van with an unusually short wheelbase and a long rear overhang does not like to climb up steep gravel driveways. Three hours of stuffing items under the tires were not helping, so I resulted to the Amazing Auto Association. They promptly told me that my membership did not cover this because it was considered a commercial rental. A few hundred dollars and one tow truck later, the big yellow nightmare was finally over. (Yellow was the color of the truck.)

After the last of our three thousand square feet was transported to our new country place (which, by the way, is about 800 square feet, plus a big shop and some outbuildings) the relaxation could finally begin. I was eager to explore every inch of the property, and our first weekend after unpacking seemed like the perfect time. I took a machete and my trusty cowboy hat and started chopping my way to blissful forested beauty.

Now, the realtor had mentioned Poison Oak, and the next-door neighbor down the hill had mentioned Poison Oak, but my passion for the land and my “forest euphoria” had prevented me from remembering my extreme allergy to this evil and, dare I say useless, weed. I have always been drawn to the woods and spent the bulk of my childhood covered with calamine lotion, baking soda, Noxzema, Aveeno, and all the familiar lotions, potions, and goos that you can imagine. I have tried bleach, peroxide (ouch), soap, vinegar, hot water, cold water, and saltwater and I can honestly say that the best thing for soothing the itch is simple hot water. You have to get it almost scalding, at least as hot as you can stand it. Now stick your arm (or other exposed body part) under the water and wait for the weirdest, and one of the best sensations that you have ever felt. It is as if all the itchy power is released at one nuclear-blast-style moment. When the heat is too much to bear, pull your arm out and towel it off. You will have between four and eight hours of itch-free relief. Also, there is no need to worry about spreading poison oak after you wash off the initial oils. I will explain this later on in the more “technical” section of the article…

I wanted to write this article not only to express my love for my new home in the forest but mainly to share my experiences with poison oak. Since moving out here, I have had a poison oak rash almost constantly in varying degrees. During the first fall, I got it bad and I stayed away from the wooded part of our property for a week or so while my rash healed. I used bleach to dry up my skin and it seemed to work, but I now think that bleach does more harm than good.

After my week off from the woods, I returned for more brush whacking and exploration, and another case of poison oak. This time, when in the woods, I noticed what I thought might be poison oak and tried to steer clear of it. I must have missed a few sticks of the devilish plant because this rash was bad. It was not as bad as when I was a child and the rash would literally get spread EVERYWHERE, but it was very irritating indeed. I was out of bleach and tried hydrogen peroxide to potentially dry up the patch. Please never do this to yourself; it is not good at all. I actually have a small scar from where this rash was that I attribute mainly to the peroxide. I think this is because when I applied the peroxide, I had scratched the rash first.

After that bout, I took it personally. I was now at war with poison oak on my own land. I can be territorial and there is no way that a plant is going to show me up, so I set out to study this vile foliage. I found out several interesting things about my new nemesis, like how poison oak is mainly west coast, and ivy is mainly east coast, as is sumac. Of course, there are strains and varieties of poison ivy out west and oak over east, but the majority of what you get in my area is poison oak, and if it is not the worst of them all then I never want to get the others.

Poison oak rash
Poison oak rash.

So, as far as what causes the rash, it is the urushiol (you-ru-she-all), which is the evil oil of the poison oak, ivy, or sumac plant that gets smeared around on your skin. I have heard old timers talk about scratching blisters and spreading it that way, but that can only happen if you did not bathe all the urushiol off your body. (Some of the old timers that I talked to may have let a few days go between showers.)

We have all heard the old saying, “Leaves of three, let it be”, and that brings me to my favorite poison plant remedy, which is simply avoidance. If you do not allow poison oak, ivy, or sumac to excrete is urushiol onto you, then you will not be cursed with the rash. I know this sounds simple, perhaps even condescending, however, proper identification skills are absolutely critical if you plan to keep this horrible condition from affecting you.

By the way, what the heck did the lucky 10-20 percent who don’t get this rash do to be blessed with their immunity? I would love to know, as I am sure there are a few of them reading this and laughing at the other 80-90 percent of us right now.

Young Poison oak oil
Young Poison oak. Notice the wet-looking leaves? That is the offending oil, urushiol shining on the surface.

Anyway, back to avoidance through proper identification. I have enclosed photos of our Pacific Northwest demon which is known technically as Toxicodendron diversilobum or Pacific poison oak. Some of these photos were taken this spring as the leaves were sprouting from their buds. We had an unusual March snow, so it may appear to be winter, but I assure you it is not. In some of the photos, you can see the different forms of shrub, tree, and vine. I also included some of the small shoots coming from the ground that look like harmless twigs without leaves, but are in fact new poison oak starts and these are every bit as toxic as the larger varieties.

poison oak
The vine-like version of poison oak with the red hue of summer leaves.

Atlantic poison oak (the eastern variety) is Toxicodendron pubescens, and looks more like a white oak leaf than Pacific poison oak. The plant will be shrub-like or can appear as a small tree. It also can be in vine form and doesn’t hesitate to worm its way up and around tree trunks. I once heard a story of a man who cut several oak trees for firewood and spent all day carrying the logs on his shoulder. The next few days he noticed a horrible case of poison oak wherever the logs touched. It turns out the logs were covered with small vines of poison oak. That was a costly and painful lesson that might have been avoided with proper identification.

poison oak flowers
These little white flowers appear in early spring.

As the summer months approach the leaves may not be as shiny, but they are just as deadly. Small blotches may appear on the leaves and look like leaf blight. (If only this disease could establish a stronger foothold on poison oak and leave my apples alone…)

As fall comes, the leaves begin to fall off and I consider this the most dangerous time for two main reasons. First, there are lots of chances for exposure due to the fall harvest activities and, of course, there is hunting season to think about. (I am not much of a hunter anymore, but I still, love to walk in the woods and observe the fall wildlife activities.) Second, the lack of leaves makes identification nearly impossible which of course renders my “avoidance” method fairly ineffective. As winter rolls around, identification problems from the lack of leaves are still an issue, but most people probably stay away from unfamiliar and densely forested areas in the wintertime anyway, don’t they?

Poison Oak berries start appearing in late spring to early summer. Take note of the patchiness of the leaves.
Poison Oak berries start appearing in late spring to early summer. Take note of the patchiness of the leaves.

Living out here in the hills is truly a blessing and I would not move back to the city if you paid me. I respect the power of poison oak, and I believe that staying away from it is the only way to avoid its punishing fury. They say, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and that is why I believe the secret is living with poison oak, so you can learn how to avoid it.

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