January and February are times for adventure and special freedom on the trail. Because of the cold weather, you’re unlikely to meet the two enemies of the hiker – rattlesnakes and poison oak.
Consequently, hikers who do not want to follow a trail – who want to investigate a new area – often go brazenly into unconquered wilderness.
They probably should not. It is always much better to stay on the trail, because nature does not read the book, and will present you with surprises.
While rattlesnakes do not hibernate, they go into a state called “torpor.” When the weather is cold they go underground, taking refuge in a burrow where the temperature is more constant, and they usually stay there. However, if there is a warm afternoon, the snake will come out to warm up.
If you go marching through bushes and the snake is disturbed, it will attack to defend itself before you even notice his presence. So, hikers, beware.
Photos (c)Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates | Click to enlarge
What about poison oak? At this time of the year, it is only a bunch of dry twigs. How could those cause you any harm?
It is true there are certain areas which are not even approachable in the summer because they are covered with poison oak, so it is tempting to investigate that area in the dead of the winter. There again, I recommend some caution.
What is the chemical that will burn your skin and cover it with blisters if you touch poison oak? It is urushiol oil. I think to understand the problem and to find solution; we need to concentrate on that point.
Oil is viscous, and it sticks to things. The dry twigs of poison oak still have some oil on them. If you observe the so-called “dead” poison oak now, you will see that buds and tiny leaves are starting to emerge. All of them are nice and shiny – and covered with urusiol.
The rash that results from the poison plants is a form of allergic contact dermatitis. (Dermatitis is swelling and irritation of the skin.) When this oil comes in contact with your skin, it will bring on a rash and big blisters, similar to a burn,. It is also quite painful and takes many weeks to clear up. People who are exposed to urusiol for the first time might no have a reaction; but the body is getting ready to have a full reaction at some subsequent exposure.
Urushiol is not only contained in poison oak, but also in poison sumac and poison ivy.
Amazingly, specimens of century-old urushiol will still cause a rash. It can stay active on any surface for at least one to five years.
One important thing to know is that the palms of your hands don’t react to urusiol. But if you touch poison oak or ivy orsumac, do not touch any other parts of your body, especially your eyes. If the eyes are exposed to urushiol, they can swell shut and become extremely painful.
The face, mouth, neck, genitals and eyelids are extremely sensitive to urushiol. These areas will develop large blisters that can ooze large amounts of fluid. Medical attention is necessary in any of these cases.
So, what should you do, now that you have walked into poison oak? The most effective thing to do, as soon as you touch poison oak, is to remove all of your clothes and put them in a plastic bag, and take a warm shower using a soap that does not contain oil (brown soap or dishwashing liquid). While under the shower, scrub under your fingernails with a toothbrush and throw away the toothbrush to get rid of the oil. All this should to be done between 3 and 30 minutes after exposure.
That all sounds nice, but most of us won’t have the luxury of treatment because most of the exposure to poison oak occurs on the trail, miles from a warm shower with soap. What can we do?
One thing is to dissolve the oil using alcohol. I won’t recommend that you carry a small flask of vodka – while some hikers might disagree! – but rubbing alcohol will do the trick. It needs to be applied with a clean cloth (a bandana would be OK), working through the affected area little by little, using a clean spot of the cloth each time and plenty of alcohol.
Wet wipes will help somewhat. If they are not available, go to a nearby creek (or use your water). Pick up some fine sand and water, and gently rub the area with the paste of water and sand. That will help remove the urushiol. Understand that you are removing sticky oil, so be thorough with your cleaning and repeat the scrubbing and washing.
There is an old wives’ tale about using the underside of the leaf of the mugwort to remove poison oak. A friend of mine has tried the sand paste followed by mugwort rubbings, and she has not broken out. (Note: This was not a clinical trial.)
When you come home it will be time to strip off your clothes and wash them a few times with hot water and soap. Here is another reason why it’s a good idea to wear long slacks on the trail; your body will get more protection.
If you have a dog that was loose on the trail – never a good idea on the trail for various reasons, but we will talk only about poison oak today – and its fur brushes along poison oak, the next time you pet your dog you could be get some urushiol oil on your skin and develop an allergic reaction. Wash your dog using plastic gloves, lots of shampoo and warm water if possible.
Be aware that your dog, when jumping on your car seat or on your couch, can also transfer the oil onto furniture, and then when you’re sitting there, you can get poison oak. What a nightmare to wash your furniture.
Did I scare you enough? I need to add that every part of the poison oak can give you a reaction: stem, leaves, berries, roots and even the ashes from burned plants.
Actually, the reaction in the case of ashes might even be the worst: If you inhale ashes from burning poison oak, you might have swelling and sores along your respiratory tract, and that doesn’t sound like it would be pleasant at all. California has outlawed burning garden debris, so you should be OK on that score, but we also have forest fires, and ashes fly in the wind, so beware if you are close to a forest fire. There might be danger in the wind.
Even touching the ashes can bring a reaction. The ashes can settle on rocks or benches. When a person sits on that object long after the fire, they can get a dermatitis from the ashes of poison oak.
Now that we have covered all of those terrible facts, it would seem important to be able to recognize poison oak, so there are many photos here to help you along. The easiest time of the year to recognize poison oak is in the fall. It turns a beautiful bright red and you won’t miss it. In the spring, the leaves are new and shiny, juicy with the fresh uruishol, but the leaves can be difficult to identify because some are big, but some are small and not yet totally developed. That is the time of the year when they can be mistaken for another plant. In the summer, they can be mixed up in the middle of other plants or bushes and not easy to detect at first glance.
You can look at the photos and see all the different growth stages from the flowering time to the fruit-bearing time (the fruits are small and difficult to see).
Try to come to Placerita Canyon Park and look at the “Poison Oak” sign along the Waterfall Trail, take a picture and see what it really looks like, because the first few leaves are opening up. There is nothing like real-life experience to have this leaf engraved in your memory.
If in doubt about a plant, remember the saying, “Leaves of three, let it be.”
Enjoy safe and healthy hiking through the cold season.
Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.