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17: leaves of three

Dear Friend,


Hello! What are you doing? (Obviously you’re reading Tracks by the Post, Yay)! Are you reading this with lunch? Maybe after work? Maybe while you are waiting in the lobby of the Animal Shelter to adopt your new best friend? Well, thank you so much for reading! And whatever you’re itching to do after this, I hope that it brings you joy!


We’re nearing the end of April; the first day of May will happen to us on Wednesday - Doorbell Ditch and Flower Bouquets Day! Maybe you know it as ‘Ding Dong Ditch’ or ‘Knock Knock Ginger’ or ‘Chicky Melly’ or ‘Knick Knack’… whatever country you happen to be in, May 1st is the day that you can set a flower bouquet on someone’s porch, ring the doorbell or knock on the door and - run away! Have you heard of this tradition? Have you ever played this friendly ‘prank?’


Frank went out yesterday and carefully photographed poison oak. (NO! Of course we’re not making poison oak bouquets with which to doorbell ditch on Wednesday)!

This is a fresh, young, poison oak sapling, a great example of "leaves of three..."

I do and I don’t enjoy these plants. I think that they are beautiful and, lucky for them, they are thriving this year, they’re definitely some of the healthiest plants around!


If you’ve never had a rash from poison oak, ivy or sumac, then, Good For You! I wouldn’t wish such a rash on anyone!


Though I’ve seen poison ivy plants with leaves of three like poison oak, I’ve managed to avoid contact. See more about Poison Ivy.


Poison sumac, with its 7 to 10 pairs of leaves, grows in consistently damp areas like swamps. I don’t even know if I’ve ever been in contact with sumac, and since ignorance is bliss, I haven’t worried about it. But now I know more and that’s good but I’ll have to say goodbye to my bliss of ignorance. See more about Poison Sumac.


Like poison sumac and ivy, poison oak contains an oily substance called urushiol. (Say it nine times slow and one time fast: YER OO SHEE AWL). Most people are allergic to urushiol. My grandpa could walk through forests of poison oak and never have a noticeable reaction, but his tolerance was rare.  


Even if you haven’t ever had a reaction to poison oak, it is a good idea to avoid coming in contact with it because the oil can stay on your shoes, clothing, work tools, your dog… and can be transferred on to someone else who will  have an allergic reaction.

Do you like to let your dog run? Pretty much every dog I know would love to run through this forest. But if you look closely, you'll see that poison oak is all around! And now, it's on your dog!


What about your dog? Well, it turns out that although dogs can spread urushiol oils from poison ivy, sumac and oak to you, dogs are considered to be ‘animals’ and therefore don’t have allergic reactions to urushiol, while most human beings and some primates will have skin irritations from poison oak, ivy and sumac. But insects, reptiles, amphibians, other mammals and birds don’t have to worry about urushiol reactions. In fact, birds eat the berries and spread the seeds, and deer eat the plants and seem to be pretty happy about it.

These little flowers in spring will soon become berries.


The empty vines and stems of this poison oak can be just as irritating as the leaves.

While you are meandering out in nature, poison oak is something to avoid year-round. The reed-like stems are left when the leaves fall off in winter. Even after the plant dies, the oils can remain for a long time.


Perhaps this is an appropriate place to tell you a quick story about a teacher for whom I have great respect so I shan’t name her. Well, OK, for the purpose of this story, let’s just name her, ‘Rose.’


Transferring to Northern California after student teaching on the east coast, Rose was eager to have a fourth-grade classroom of her own. Arriving in late August just days before school started, she rented the first apartment available and set up her new life with a goal of immersing herself into this new place and into her new school. She wanted to learn all about the local nature and the history, the varied cultures, and above all, she was excited to get to know her students and their families.


I’ll fast forward to January. The school year had gone swimmingly well. The kids loved Rose and she felt sure that her calling as a teacher had been spot-on. This is what she was ‘born to do!’


And then she decided to go off-roading. The curriculum called for a study of the local Native American tribe. The curriculum indicated topics to cover and even spelled out what to teach. It also suggested a few craft ideas. An artsy person herself, Rose skimmed through the suggestions until ‘dream catchers’ caught her eye. She immediately knew what to do!


Very early the next morning, Rose gathered together a few big paper bags and a pair of sheers. She put on her heavy east-coast coat and drove to a nearby trail-head surrounded by sugar pines, manzanita and majestic oak trees. The American River wound around at the bottom of the canyon, far below the parking lot. Rose had hiked here many times and she knew exactly why she had come here on this brisk winter morning, the last day of Christmas Vacation, her students would return to school the next morning.  She was at this very trail to gather supplies with which to surprise her returning class. “We’re going to start right away on our best craft project of the year!” she’d tell them.


It would be the first time a teacher at that school had taught their children how to make real dream catchers using raw materials from nature!


Rose hiked along until she came upon a large clearing full of tender reed-like stems. All at about 24” tall, they were perfect for Rose’s project. A dream catcher requires a hoop. She would show the children how to bend the reeds into sturdy hoops and wrap them with long strands of dead grasses. Rose spent the morning cutting and gathering the tender reeds and long, dead grasses. Satisfied that she’d collected plenty, she hiked back to her car, threw the bounty of ‘dream catcher hoop-sticks and wrapping-grasses’ into her back seat and drove home, elated. The next morning, she would greet the children with news of this upcoming super fun craft time!


The dream catchers did indeed make a splash! The children decorated them beautifully with feathers and leaves, colorful dried flowers, tiny pine cones, acorns, and, some children brought in sea shells to add as finishing touches. The creations were passed around from classroom to classroom, admired by the principal and other teachers, given as gifts, handled by other students, siblings, parents, bus-drivers, the school librarian and the lunch ladies… and by the following week, over 40% of the faculty and student body had called in sick. Only two of Rose’s students had continued to come to school. Rose had to go to the emergency room.


Leafless poison oak in winter became the perfect dream catcher reed-like hoop material – but what a nightmare! The urushiol oil in the cut stems spread easily and stayed in the population for months. It took some time for Rose to live this down. Obviously, I’m telling the story 30 years later, (albeit with a bit of creative license), but the tale lives on.


Just one tiny drop of the oil, urushiol, can, in certain circumstances, cause skin irritation in hundreds of people. And everyone reacts a bit differently. A rash develops in its own time, sometimes hours, sometimes days after exposure. So, when you “get poison oak,” whether you scratch your itch or not, the rash seems to spread, but the truth is, a rash will develop in its own time and it’s possible that you have continued to expose your skin to oils that haven’t been properly removed from your environment.


There are hundreds of ideas and recommendations out there about how to get rid of urushiol oils and rashes with a variety of soaps and salves, tonics and even injections.


The most common (and immediately useful) tip (besides avoiding contact with poison plants all together) is to scrub your fingernails, wash thoroughly in between fingers… be aware when you hike that your shoes or boots and laces can also pick up and retain these oils.


Having expounded on this itchy subject, I hope that you will not skip your hike. Nature has no expectations and gives no promises… freedom to spend time in nature also means that we must hold ourselves accountable to pay attention and to never stop learning!


We are incredibly grateful that you are along on our journey; thank you for being here and thank you for keeping in touch! Write when you can, we’d love to hear from you!


Happy wishes for a peaceful week ahead,


Gently Be,

Leslie and Frank


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