Once upon a time I could practically roll in poison oak and nothing would happen to me. Now I say “poison oak” and it feels like I’m about to break out into a rash.

Poison oak was never a problem in Lake Tahoe. Nor was it an issue in Baja. Well, I’m now in the land of oaks, which means I’m surrounded by the poison as well.

Until moving to Chico I naively thought poison oak was something I had to worry about on a seasonal basis. Sort of like, out of sight, out of mind. Not so fast I’m learning. Fortunately, I’m learning the easy way and not by an itchy experience.

These are tips Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has for identifying poison oak each season:

  • Spring: Poison oak can be very green with varying amounts of red on the leaves, or no red on the leaves at all. It has erect stems and leaves in threes; the leaves have a shiny and smooth look to them.
  • Summer: The buds of the poison oak have bloomed and are greenish and white. The plant is still pretty green; only at the end of the summer do the leaves start turning reddish.
  • Fall: Around this time the leaves are no longer bright green; they now take on the famous reddish look.
  • Winter: It can be difficult to identify poison oak during winter time because it’s dormant. It loses its leaves and looks like bare, erect sticks coming from the ground. Just because the leaves are no longer present, that does not mean the rash-inducing oils are absent. Be wary of the branches as well; look for cinnamon-colored branches.

I’ve always counted on the leaves as my way to identify poison oak. It wasn’t until I was on a group hike in Upper Bidwell Park in Chico last November that someone pointed out poison oak. No leaves. I didn’t intuitively understand. I thought I missed what was being talked about.

While I’m usually one who likes to learn new things, this bit of information that poison oak is something to be wary of year-round was not the fun kind of facts I prefer.

Still, it is good to know, especially since I had one of my worst bouts of poison oak last summer after contacting it in this same park.

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