How to Spot Poison Oak


Within the wild forests and uncultivated lands of the United States, there are many plants and animals of which to be wary, but perhaps the best-known plants are poison ivy and poison oak. These shrubs and vines secrete an oil called urushiol, which causes an allergic skin reaction that lasts anywhere from 14 to 20 days without treatment. Hikers, gardeners, outdoor enthusiasts and children have a greater risk of exposure and should actively look for it when they are outside. Learning to identify poison oak is an essential part of avoiding contact with it.

  • Identify the habitats of poison oak. The plant grows in forests, shady canyons and valleys, coastal plains and grassy hillsides.

  • Notice the type of plant. If you live in the western part of the United States, poison oak normally grows as a shrub, although in deep canyons it may grow as a vine around tree trunks. In the east, poison oak grows as a vine.

  • Check the leaf shape. Both poison ivy and poison oak are known for their leaves, which are made up of three leaflets. This fact spawned the popular folk saying: "Leaves of three, let it be." The middle or terminal leaf also extends past the other two on a slender stalk.

  • Look for greenish-white flowers during spring and small yellow-white berries during summer and early fall. The leaves also change colors during fall to shades of orange, russet and brilliant red.

  • Beware of bare stalks sticking straight up out of the ground during winter. The leafless main branches are tall, with the shorter side branches closer to the ground. The twigs and stems tend to be tan, segmented and either fuzzy or smooth.

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