You Can Look But You Better Not Touch

© 2002 Charles E. Jones

Got an itch to take a hike? Here it is spring (or is it summer?) at last. You’re sitting in a windowless cubicle or maybe even an office with a view dreaming of the glorious blue sky with birds circling effortlessly on warm updrafts over gently tanning hills. Your heart longs to be there. Time to escape from this Silly Valley. Time to take a hike.

Choose any of the close-by trails. Maybe one at Almaden Quicksilver or Sanborn or Alum Rock Park. Walk a ways. As you look around, you notice the lush vegetation of California’s Coastal Ranges. You spot an attractive plant with shiny green leaves, gently lobed and furrowed, perhaps, tinged with red and gold. It may be at ankle height alongside the trail. It may be a tangle of brush or a vine scampering up a tree with reddish stems climbing for light at the top. Birds flit about eating the small white berries clinging to the stems. If it’s evening, you may spot a deer browsing on its leaves of three. As you brush against it, that itch you had becomes a full blown, mind-possessing, all-consuming reality. You have poison oak.

This is not to say that you are doomed to get poison oak every time you take a stroll in the country. I have never had it despite years of living and working close to it. I have brushed against it and, at least at one point, grabbed onto it and miraculously never suffered the consequences. Apparently some early Native Americans were desensitized to poison oak, but since they also had cures for it, we can guess this wasn’t true for all of them. In early times poison oak was used for everything from spits for fish to shafts for arrows, from black dye for baskets and tattoos to cures for warts. We humans are amazingly resourceful.

Oil in the leaves and branches is the culprit that causes all the problems. Smoke from burning poison oak should definitely be avoided. Firefighters breathing burning poison oak can suffer serious lung irritation. I had a friend whose husband was a firefighter for the California Division of Forestry. During one brush fire the smoke from burning poison oak got up his pant legs and caused a rash that put him out of commission for several weeks.

So what does this mean for you? Should you take that hike? Of course you should! Just learn to recognize poison oak and pay attention. And when your child presents you with a handful of beautiful red leaves, three to a stalk, in the late summer or fall, wash, wash, wash that child. Watch for a rash, and see a dermatologist if things start looking serious. But poison oak is much less serious than the ailment you get from staying home and not following your heart.

To get more information on hiking trails close to where you live contact Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department (408) 358-3741 or