Rev. Nancy's Blog

Poison Oak: It's All Perception

The workshop facilitator’s assignment was to go out into nature, find something that attracts you, and listen for its message.

Easy, I thought. This is going to be fun!

And the Universe laughed.

DSC04470A fallen log’s sculptural quality attracted me. Its trunk curled in strips of dark and light. Small creatures had been at work on and under it. I stood there, listening. Nothing.

I glanced down and noticed I was standing in a patch of low-growing poison oak [Toxicodendron diversilobum - its Midwestern and Eastern cousins are poison ivy and poison sumac, respectively]. Obeying my instinct to step away from this irritation-inducing plant, I moved on.

Next I came to a small creek, its water bubbling happily among rocks and logs. A restful place. I paused, and listened. Nothing.

I glanced down and noticed I was standing in a patch of poison oak. Its green scalloped leaves of three glistened with morning dew.

Moving on, I approached a moss-covered rock and paused there, listening. I heard nothing. Not even birdsong.

I looked down and saw I was standing in a patch of poison oak. Three times I’d paused in poison oak. I asked, “Poison Oak, is it you? Are you the messenger?” I listened and heard,

Finally! You are really slow today.

Chagrined, I agreed, then asked, “Honored Poison Oak, what is your message?”

Perception. It really is all perception.

I’d moved away from the poison oak, thinking only of the skin irritation its toxic urushiol produces – itchy, red swelling misery. Readily identifiable in autumn when its leaves turn bright pink or red, it is less visible in other seasons. Winter’s bare canes aren’t as easy to identify and carry as much of the toxic urushiol as the leaves. In summer, the vine with its scalloped sets of three leaves grows among blackberry canes, ready to wipe against hands and arms seeking the juicy berries. It comes home as residue on my dog’s fur.

And yet,  chemical is a curative for some diseases. The Chumash Indians and other tribes used the plant stems and roots to weave patterns into their baskets. When the plant was boiled and left to dry, the juice turned black and was used as a dye in basketry. Roots ground into a coarse meal were cooked to make a gruel-like cereal. A binding of fresh poison oak leaves was thought to counteract the venom of a rattlesnake bite.

Some animals, notably deer and ground squirrels, feed on the leaves of the plant. It is rich in phosphorus, calcium, and sulfur. Bird species use the berries for food, and use the plant structure for shelter.

Poison oak has its beneficial attributes as well as its less pleasant ones, as do all things. It is all perception and a willingness to give honor and due respect – to overcome our prejudices and adjust our perceptions.

Thank you for the lesson, Poison Oak.



U.S. Forest Service: Toxicodendron diversilobum

Univ. of Michigan, Dearborn – Native American Ethnobotany Database: Toxicodendron diversilobum