PHOTO: An expansive native oak in a natural oak woodland setting, just up from the banks of Chico Creek. Look closely, its trunk is encircled with a stand of poison oak, just leafing out. Some of the poison oak twines its way up the trunk of the tree. Both plants provide a lot of food and shelter for woodland creatures.
Sometimes it’s the difficult things, the things that challenge us, that help us to stretch and grow the most.
This axiom – or cliché – is as true in the garden as it is in any other area of our lives. The aspects of the garden and gardening we find challenging are what require us to really look at what we’re made of – at what intentions and hopes drive us. It is the spiders, snakes and gophers, the disease, drought and death that pose such questions for us.
PHOTO: Poison oak in flower. Some people say the flowers are magnets for pollinators and smell lightly of clove.
I am currently reading Secrets of the Oak Woodlands by California naturalist Kate Marianchild. The book’s section on poison oak as a keystone plant of our oak woodlands reminds me that at this time of year in particular, it’s poison oak – finishing up its flowering, setting seed, leafing out in all of its glossy green summer glory, and sending up tiny seedlings in my garden, that asks me directly and personally WHO AM I AS A GARDENER?
Poison oak’s botanical name is Toxicodendrun diversilobum. Although it used to be considered a member of the Rhus genus, Toxicodendron is now its own genus and consists of woody trees, shrubs and vines in the Anacardiaceae or Sumac Family, all members of the genus produce the skin-irritating oil urushiol. While some people are less susceptible, most people will develop the rash if they come in direct contact with the oil. Some say that you can develop immunity, others say that you can lose resistance or immunity with repeated exposure. The native people of the North State are thought to have eaten the berries of the plant in order to build immunity. I am highly prone to this skin irritation (as are up to 90% of people, but very few other animals) and in my first three springs gardening in the North State, I contracted poison oak so badly on my face and arms I was forced to go to the emergency room for a steroid shot in order to open my left eye.
Three springs in a row.
Take away its rash inducing nature and poison oak is in fact everything a gardener wants in a good shrub – it’s adapted to our climate, thrives in most soils, its flowers are lightly scented – some say like cloves. Its foliage is attractive in its burnt-red spring growth, in its deep summer greenery and in its fabulous range of fall color. It bears eye catching fruit which persists through winter, and is attractive in all seasons to birds and pollinators.
But IT DOES have this rash inducing nature.
So while we may not want to encourage it IN our gardens, poison oak IS integral to the foothill and valley woodland and riparian ecosystems of the North State. According to research presented by Marianchild, more than 50 of our most enjoyed resident and migratory song birds, as well as pollinators, beetles and lizards depend on the poison oak – its leaves and seeds – for both food and shelter. Further, other plants of these ecosystems rely on poison oak’s ability to re-sprout after fire or clearing in order to protect (nurse plant) them as they regrow more slowly.
Once upon a time I thought seriously about attempting to eradicate a large swath of poison growing on a bank on the other side of my own garden fence where my garden interfaced with a wildland corridor.
“It’s a hazard to me and my family and walkers on the trail,” I thought. “I could hire a crew to remove it and then spray the young shoots with Round-Up.” (Right now you should hear emphatic BOO-ing from the listening audience). Ultimately, and thankfully, I did neither of these things.
Instead, I finally realized in what way I continued to come into contact with the oil. (Ok, I can be a slow learner.) I finally realized that I was mistaking the tiniest of poison oak seedlings for the multitude of Pistache seedlings in the natural areas beneath blue oaks in my garden. So I stopped pulling it by hand without gloves. Now there’s expanded awareness for you – seedling ID 101.
Poison oak taught me to identify the many native and invasive seedlings in my garden after they’d opened their first true sets of leaves. And those that were positively identified as poison oak, I dug with my trowel and placed directly into a bag using gloved hands. Attention to detail was all it took to keep me from succumbing to the challenge of poison oak and the rash it gave me.
PHOTO: The sap of both poison oak and poison ivy is very dark brown/black (similar to the resin markings on the seeds) and native cultures have used the sap as well as ashes as pigment for baskets and tattoos.
I hate poison oak rash. But I love the sounds of birds in the morning and the sounds of chorus frogs in the evening. Had I removed the poison oak, I would have devastated both food and shelter for the birds I so enjoy, and had I sprayed Round-Up, now known to have serious negative effects on amphibians of all kinds, I would have devastated the population of chorus frogs in my nearby creek.
Am I a decorator – attempting to make things look good on just the seen surface? Or am I a steward? Am I operating in isolation and defiance of the environment in which I live? Or am I striving to be an artistic steward working as one part of a large integrated whole that IS the environment in which I make my home among many other lives?
Among other seasonal challenges, poison oak reminds me of something I acknowledged years ago: Gardening is a full contact sport – not for the faint of heart. Bugs, snakes, sun, cold, damp, allergenic pollen and rash inducing foliage might sometimes seem to be obstacles in the way of our passion (obsession), but they are in fact always opportunities for growth. Little in the natural world does not have its own beauty and purpose.
It’s up to me to expand my awareness, and then act and appreciate accordingly.
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In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.