Hiking in So Cal: leaves of three, let it be

The poison oak of the U.S. Pacific coast, R. diversiloba, is a shrubby or sometimes climbing plant that grows to 2.4 m (8 ft) high; its three-leaflet leaves are toothed or lobed. (www.flickr.com/photos/42614915@N00/ Creative Commons)

Joseph Espiritu

If you’ve ever done any considerable amount of hiking around Southern California, chances are you’ve come across a dreaded patch of Western poison oak. Usually clustered as leaves of three, and glistening with urushoil, the shrub can be inviting to the eye. For the fortunate few who somehow have resistance to this evil plant, I salute you.

I have had my fair share of encounters with this plant, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to spot it most of the time before making contact, there were times my clumsiness made me pay.

My very first date with poison oak was a few months back ago at Aliso Woods in Aliso Viejo. I was ending a nice ride around the park when I decided to lean my bike into what seemed an innocent patch of green leaves. Needless to say upon my retrieval of my bike, I finally realized that I was touching leaves with a rounded complexion and undefined edge. Yes, I had touched poison oak and it was all over my gloves and my bike.

After a moment of panic, I hustled back to my car and disrobed as carefully as possible, making sure I didn’t further spread the contagious oil. As I set aside my contaminated clothes into a “quarantine” bag, thoughts of friends telling me to wash as soon as possible if I ever made contact gave me comfort. I drove home, showered, washed my gear, and doused my bike with dishwashing soap. Then I waited for the first symptoms to appear.

Twenty four hours later: no signs of rash, no burning or itching sensation. I was a happy camper.

Knowing I have some type of immunity against this plant gave me the bravado to traverse the wilderness with less care, but after doing some research, and reading how poison oak immunity can lessen with more contact, my fears returned.

Since then, I have made contact with the plant numerous times, and while I carry Technu (poison oak wash) with me, I rarely use it since I’ve figured that unless you’re super-allergic to the plant, Mother Nature allows you a few hours to get a good scrubbing in.