Many of us know the saying, “Leaves of three, leave them be.” When we learned that phrase, we also learned of the terrible things that can happen if you don’t leave poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) be; rashes, blisters, and easy spreading of the allergic reaction across the entire body. The oils that exist on the leaves and stems of this plant can be hard to remove after you’ve been exposed, and often takes special soap to wash them off. Even after you’ve tried to wash it off, you can still have the rash for days or weeks.
However, the point of this article is not to scare you away and cover only the bad things about poison oak. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. What many don’t know are the reasons why this plant is so important and how it is a key component in the natural habitat it thrives in.
So, what could possibly be good about this plant? Let’s look at a few important characteristics…
1. Beauty from afar: When seen from a few feet away, it’s actually quite a vibrant and remarkably beautiful plant. In the spring and summer months, the leaves are a rich green and the plant displays beautiful, white, showy flowers and berries. During the fall months, you’ll see the leaves turn to a stunning red, yellow, or sometimes orange. Next time you are on a trail, see if you can spot the poison oak in the wooded areas, mostly likely near streams and under trees.
2. A nurse plant: Poison oak can be an excellent plant to use for restoration purposes. They are known as nurse plants. Nurse plants help establish the growth and development of other plants growing alongside them under the valley oaks or other trees that grow native in the area. In areas that have been impacted by fire, drought, or plant removal, the poison oak provides a habitat for the seedlings of other plants to germinate.
3. A source of food for wildlife: Unlike humans, many animals do not have an allergic reaction to poison oak. In fact, the animals rely on it for a source of nutrients. Deer, squirrels, and other fauna feed on the leaves, which have phosphorus, calcium, and sulfur. Birds also utilize the berries for food and the structure of the plant for shelter.
Of course, the best way to appreciate poison oak without a high risk of getting the rash is to stay on the defined trails, wear pants and long sleeves, and wash yourself with soap immediately after you get home from a hike.
We hope that you can join us in seeing the good in this native plant, even though it can be hard to recognize when you’re in the thick of it!