by Marshall Newman, October 23, 2013
In my articles chronicling Anderson Valley from the late 1950s through the late 1980s, I have detailed a variety of native flora and fauna; from redwood and Douglas fir to deer and snail. Anderson Valley’s bountiful natural environment probably deserves more articles than any sane person would care to write or read, but I would be negligent if I did not devote an article to one of the valley’s most respected — but not loved — native plants: poison oak.
Everyone who has stepped off the pavement in Anderson Valley knows poison oak. If not, they soon will. Pacific poison oak — Toxicodendron diversilobum is the scientific name — is a woody shrub or vine that grows along the West Coast from Baja to British Columbia. With leaves that vaguely resemble California valley oak and grow in three-leaf clusters, it varies considerably in appearance. Poison oak can be a low creeper, a small, upright bush, a substantial shrub and occasionally — with the support of a large tree — a thick, climbing vine. New, glossy green leaves (accented by loose clusters of small white berries) in the spring give way to deeper green in the summer and often red — especially in sunlit locations — in autumn.
While attractive, poison oak’s real claim to fame is the rash it imparts to most who come in contact with it. An oil in poison oak’s leaves and stem called urushiol causes the skin rash, which varies from localized redness and a few raised bumps to ugly red welts that cover a significant portion of the body. Sometimes it even produces weepy blisters and lesions that spread like crazy. Smoke from burning poison oak and other internal contact also is unhealthy, producing acute lung inflammation and throat swelling.
Anderson Valley is prime poison oak country. Our corner of the valley southwest of Philo offered particularly good growing conditions and poison oak grew in profusion: we had all the variations, including vines that were five inches thick and grew more than 100 feet up Douglas fir trees. We also had a few spots where poison oak did not — and probably could not — grow; open pastures and meadows, and deeply shaded forests.
Our property — El Rancho Navarro — was a summer camp and poison oak was definitely NOT a nice natural element in the landscape. My father tried to eradicate it as best he could around camp proper. He hated pesticides, so eradication every spring took the form of myself, my siblings and an occasional hired hand, outfitted with long sleeves and gloves, wielding hoes, pickaxes and pulaskis to grub out the worst patches. Just one of the joys of being a camp director’s kid.
Apparently I am — or at least was — one of those lucky people with a limited reaction to contact with poison oak; some redness, some rash, some itching. A really lucky few have no reaction at all. Then there are those unlucky people whose reactions are massive. With 80 children at camp every session, I saw some very bad cases, a few of which were the result of very limited exposure — in a couple of instances, the kid may have caught it simply by being downwind of a poison oak patch.
Campers were instructed on arrival how to recognize poison oak and the consequences of not recognizing it. I realize now that those instructions probably could have been more thorough. Poison oak is obvious to those who have seen lots of it, but plenty of other local plants look similar and poison oak hides pretty well in a forest.
As a preventative, camp bathrooms were equipped with bars of “brown soap,” aka Fels-Naptha. Gritty and lacking in lather, it was — still is — renowned for removing poison oak oil from skin and clothes. Apparently “brown soap” can be a skin irritant in its own right, but we did not know that back then. Given the choice between brief soap irritation and several days of poison oak irritation, we would have taken the former.
Nevertheless, stuff happened. In the late 1950s, only a couple of years after camp was founded, one counselor decided a vine growing against a particular fir tree would be a perfect “rope” swing. He cut the vine at the bottom, and he and his cabin group had a merry time swinging, Tarzan style. They were less merry a few days later, when poison oak rash appeared on their hands, arms and — in a few cases — legs and cheeks. Then there was the overnight camping trip when one of my cabin mates tossed a stick of poison oak, with a three-leaf cluster still attached, onto the campfire. We scattered, taking the perpetrator with us. He got a thorough berating for being an idiot (apparently he didn’t pay attention when poison oak was discussed) and we spent the next few hours elsewhere until the fire burned down and could be safely extinguished.
The rash from poison oak primarily was treated with topical ointments back then. By the early 1960s, people with really bad cases were given a cortisone shot, which seemed to turn a virulent case into a more benign but more widespread one. I researched the internet while writing this article and discovered there are now a variety of topical and prescription treatments for poison oak. Kids — and adults — these days have it so good!
I tried a couple of folk medicine approaches to poison oak during my Anderson Valley childhood. I read somewhere local Native Americans ate poison oak berries as a preventative. That sounded pretty good, so I tried it every spring for three years. Poison oak berries are bitter and really dry out the mouth, but I didn’t get poison oak for four years. I later read that eating the berries can cause internal poison oak, which — as previously noted — is particularly nasty.
For a while after my immune years I used a folk remedy to treat my cases of poison oak: black tea. Specifically, one brewed a cup of Lipton tea and held the used, pressed out tea bag against the inflamed skin. The tannin in the tea leaves was purported to dry up the rash. It worked for me, but did leave my skin in those areas rather dry for a few days afterwards.
I’ve recently noticed old habits die hard. My trips to Anderson Valley are occasional these days, but whether walking or driving, my eyes are draw instinctively to poison oak. The habit of avoiding contact with poison oak also has stayed with me. To be honest, some childhood experiences aren’t worth repeating and a case of poison oak is one of them. ¥¥