If I say poison oak, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Most likely, you would think of red itchy rashes, and I don’t blame you. That itchy rash is caused by an oil on the plant called urushiol. This oil is found on the leaves of poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac. Poison oak is typically found in riparian ecosystems and is usually found growing near sycamore trees, oak trees and mugwort. It can be a low shrub or a vine that climbs up to 40 feet.
When it comes into contact with humans or animals, the urushiol found on poison oak clings to the skin or fur and can cause allergies which lead to itchy rashes. Burning poison oak is also dangerous. The urushiol becomes aerosolized in the smoke and can be toxic to lungs and can even cause death.
Everything about this plant may seem evil, but is it possible that this sinister plant has a hidden side to it? Well, yes! Urushiol oil that resides on poison oak does not affect all animals in the same way. Poison oak can actually provide shelter and food to small animals. Fox squirrels nourish their appetite by eating the summer berries of poison oak. The California Towhees build their nest on poison oak.
Some people call poison oak the guardian of the forest. For example, If a lumberjack wants to cut down a tree surrounded by poison oak, he may think twice about going through all that poison oak just to cut down one tree. Although poison oak can offer benefits for certain animals, it can still be quite dangerous. For these reasons, always be aware when you hike, for the rhyme doesn’t lie “Leaves of 3 let it be”.
By: Aiza Qureshi, Age 10
The Art & Wilderness Institute Journalism Team are individuals who appreciate the world we live in and love to explore the myriad connections of all things in the world around us. We love to highlight the beautiful things we see in nature and to help others find ways to live with more connections to the outdoor world and the way it benefits us all.