Mark D. Roberts

poison oak big surOne of the running jokes in my family has to do with my peculiar fascination with poison oak. When we’d go hiking in the foothills of California, which are often covered with poison oak, I’d be shouting out warnings: “Poison oak to the right! Look out on your left!” My family members would laugh at my obsession. But, let it be known that they’d also avoid that which I had brought to their attention. (Photo: A patch of poison oak in Big Sur, California)
You might think my extreme fear of poison oak stems from my having once suffered with the itchy, oozing rash caused by direct exposure to the plant. In fact, however, I have never had poison oak, probably because I’ve been so committed to avoiding contact with it. The strength of my feelings about poison oak probably comes from having once seen the infected chest and back of my friend Jeff, who lived down the street from me in Glendale. He had hidden in a patch of poison oak, and was covered with a horrific rash. One look at Jeff and I resolved never, ever to come in contact with poison oak.  Even though I spent countless hours hiking in the poison oak infested hills of California, I managed to avoid getting zinged by it.
poison ivy treeI’m sorry to say that by moving to Texas I haven’t left poison oak behind. It grows in my new home state. But I’m even sorrier to say that I now have new sources of Urushiol (the oil in poison oak that causes the rash) to worry about. Far more common in the Texas Hill Country is poison ivy. Apparently we also have poison sumac and poison oak.
But poison ivy is all over the place here, including my yard!  A month ago, Beth, a friend from California was visiting our family. She spied a plant in my yard that looked like a type of ivy and had three-leaf clusters. So she took a sample to the Cibolo Nature Center in town, where an expert confirmed that it was poison ivy. Since her discovery, I have spent several hours applying a chemical that is supposed to kill poison ivy to the dozens of small plants in the yard. I’m sure I won’t eradicate it completely, but at least I can try to keep it under control. I’m not so worried about direct exposure to poison ivy, since my Jeff-induced phobia remains. But I do fret that one of our pets might get into the plant and share secondhand Urushiol with me or my family.poison ivy starbucks
If you’re looking for technical information about poison ivy and its cousins, check out the online Poison Ivy, Oak, & Sumac Information Center. This website is not sponsored by any medical institution, but is managed by Jim Dunphy, a man who wants to help people avoid the unpleasantness of an Urusiol rash. Who knows? Maybe Jim saw Jeff’s tortured torso when he was a kid.
Now that I have a new obsession – identifying poison ivy rather than poison oak – I’ve seen it all over the place. The photos to the right show poison ivy climbing a tree in Boerne. This tree, as you can see from the lower photo, is by the local Starbucks. So if you’re in my home town and get a latté, be sure to watch out. Otherwise,

You’re gonna need an ocean
Of calamine lotion
You’ll be scratching like a hound
the minute you start to mess around.
Poison ivy, poison ivy?!
Well late at night when you’re sleeping
Poison ivy comes a creeping all around.

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