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Poison Oak Returns: Can I Live with This?

(For all you fans–there’s even more on poison oak.)


Take a look at this picture of poison oak with wild fern. If you didn’t know the plant brought out a rash in a lot of people, wouldn’t you say, “Ooh, pretty foliage”?

If you look at poison oak with an unjaundiced eye, it’s beautiful: leafing out, in full leaf, and blooming. I heard a story about some little girls-well-trained in recognizing poison oak leafed-out and poison oak in winter-who picked the pretty flowers. (Note: in flower essence therapy, poison oak flowers are recommended for irritable touch-me-not syndrome. Maybe these girls had a plan in mind.)


When it comes to touching the plants, some people are horribly allergic to poison oak, and some are not affected at all. Some of us have been both in the course of our lives-it’s possible to acquire an immunity by gently brushing up against poison oak over time. The native Americans in my area used poison oak as basketry material–it’s very pliable and strong.

It’s also possible to lose that immunity by lack of contact. I found this out the hard way. Never assume you’re not sensitive to the plant, just because it was OK last year.

If you are particularly sensitive to poison oak (or someone close to you is), then it should definitely be cleared from the high-traffic zones. I’m sorry to say that, other than digging it out, I don’t know of any other safe way to get rid of it. Except hiring someone else to dig it out. There was a lot of excitement around here a few years ago, when people started using a highly concentrated vinegar as a defoliant: it was supposed to be the cure for poison oak, eventually killing it systemically.

Yeah, but it turned out that you have to do it religiously a few times in a season, and if the plants have substantial woody growth you have to cut them back first, and wait for the new growth. And even then, it just may not work.

So it’s back to digging, unless you want to go the toxic defoliant route. If you’re looking to make your living space safer and more comfortable, toxic defoliants don’t strike me as the ideal addition, but that’s just me.

But while you may want to get rid of it in some areas, it’s not necessary to uproot every piece of poison oak just because it’s The Enemy. If you have kids, teach them what it looks like, including in the flowering season. They’ll need to know that anyway, because if it grows around your place, you can bet it’s at their friend’s house and on their shortcuts from school. Oh, and remember to alert your visitors, too.

Poison oak doesn’t always spread-keep an eye on it, and don’t give it ideal growth conditions (such as water and fluffy soil). And give it a little space away from the house to spread out and look beautiful-a pachysandra for the 21st century-and the original low-care foliage plant.

As for whether poison oak is a friend or enemy-maybe it’s a little bit of both. Nobody ever said ambiguity was limited to the human world.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond June 13, 2008, 11:49 pm

    While it is a very pretty plant with its glossy leaves and pretty blooms, I’m afraid I’d have to eradicate it from my property, if I ever discovered any. My daughter is horribly allergic and has had ugly blisters, even though she’s fully aware of what it looks like and where to expect to find it. :)

  • Barbee' June 14, 2008, 10:43 pm

    Thank you for the photo. I have never seen poison oak, we do not have it in Kentucky (according to the State Botanist). We do have worlds of poison ivy and I battle it constantly as the birds plant it everywhere. I had wondered what poison oak looks like.

  • Mary Ann June 16, 2008, 7:54 am

    Wow. I’ve never seen it and can only vaguely think of even hearing about it. I don’t think it grows around here. Beautiful leaves though. Cool post too, great blog.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 17, 2008, 5:52 am

    Nancy – Clearly you’re in a situation where a total poison oak/ivy purge is optimum. My feeling is, it’s all about context. For instance, there are some gorgeous broom plants available, but since broom is a horrible, invasive fire hazard where I live, I’d never plant them, no matter what claims were made about how well-behaved they are.

    Barbee – I well remember poison ivy from my childhood, when we moved east and I got a hellacious case of it! I hadn’t thought about birds planting the berries, but of course they’re nice juicy berries that birds might love (presumably they’re not allergic!) If I recall, poison ivy has runners like poison oak, too: double fun! ; )

    Mary Ann – Thanks for the kind words. Glad to introduce you–you never know when it will be valuable information!

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