"Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known." Sagan


Poison Oak continued

In all of my time teaching and discussing the world around us, I've always attempted to convey understanding, appreciation, and respect. The realization that each of these things, individually and as a group, has as much right to exist as any of us. That everything is much more valuable to us than we may initally imagine. 

I particularly enjoy doing this for those things which tend to carry a bad reputation in the human mind: spiders, snakes, slugs, frogs, mud, dirt, molds, poison oak... all that is creepy, crawly, slimy, and uncomfortable. The things which so many often suggest that we should 'just kill it'.

The thing is, all of these things are necessary for our survival, their survival, and the survival of other living things. We would die without the slimy maggots and fungi, without the insect eating spiders, without the plants that allow us to breathe, shelter ourselves, make medicine and eat.

So what about Poison Oak? Why not just destroy it and plant another plant that doesn't give us rashes? Who or what could possibly benefit from it? Of course, it provides oxygen via photosynthesis for us and other lifeforms, but what else?

One of the first answers that springs to mind is - poison oak obviously provides some level of physical protection from humans for the plants and animals in it's immediate area. I certainly am not going to try to catch a critter hiding in it, or pick a flower that's growing amidst it's foliage. Several bird species are smart enough to realize this and build there little nest homes there.

Also, aside from being protective shelter, it is a  direct food source for some bird species (some of which are endangered), black-tailed deer, even browse for horses and other livestock. Through the process of photosynthesis, poison oak creates food from the energy of sunlight. The grazers get this food energy by eat the young leaves, the birds eat the berries. The energy is then passed on to other animals when these animals become food themselves, thereby making it an indirect food source for others.

While people might be able to pick a different brand of bread to eat when the store stops carrying their favorite, wild animals don't have this luxury. There rarely is a replacement brand standing by. So, if this plant were to be wiped due to someone's dislike of it, these critters lose homes and food.

Humans may not be able to make salads out of it, but even we utilize it. The various nations, like the Chumash and Karuk, who've lived side by side with poison oak for countless years and thus developed vast and intimate knowledge, have used it for numerous things: from dye to lacquer, from a cure for ringworm to warts, plus some; it has even been safely used in cooking. 

I, painfully, do not possess this knowledge. I found out the uncomfortable way that the oil found in poison oak, Urushiol oil, is also found in many other plants. Like in the skin of the mango I ate. Believe me when I say that "poison oak lips" are not fun! 

The other members of Toxicodendron -  poison ivy & poison sumac; Anacardiaceae - lacquer tree, mangoes, cashews, and others; and Ginkgo Biloba all contain urushiol oil. The Japanese obtained that well known beautiful deep gloss from the oil in the lacquer tree. The oil is also used by scientists when studying DNA.

Today the bright red poison oak provided a beautiful contrast against the grey of the rain and the clouds. Sometimes this is enough.

While I'm sure these are not all of the things that poison oak and it's special oil have to offer, I hope it can help to give pause to step back and consider that this plant has given quite a bit to us and has never required anything in return... except maybe to keep a respectful distance.

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