Home Featured A Cautionary Tale: Poison Plant Species

A Cautionary Tale: Poison Plant Species

A Cautionary Tale: Poison Plant Species
Illustration by Diane Kim

Melanie Martinez

Science and Tech Editor

With clear skies and warming weather, many students at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and residents of Isla Vista (I.V.) are heading out to enjoy their favorite outdoor activities. Lots of people head out to the beaches for some surfing or sunbathing, but quite a few others head up into the Santa Ynez mountains for hiking. However, those who are not familiar with their plants might not notice the itch-inducing plant that is camouflaged within the hiking paths. Poison ivy is always a heeded precaution when stepping out into nature, but some people may not know how to identify it, along with other poisonous species.

Illustration by Diane Kim

There’s an old saying that follows, “Leaves of three, let it be,” but because it is such a broad categorization, many harmless plants are mistaken as poisonous by those who are inexperienced. So how does someone correctly identify poison ivy? First, it is important to know that there are three California-native types of poisonous plant species: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

Poison ivy heavily resembles a lush green bush that could grow up to 6 feet tall. However, there are significant differences that can help someone identify them. Do be wary of the three leaves warning, but also look out for it growing along trees and fences. Another feature to observe would be the vine. Most poison ivy vines are thick and hairy compared to their non-poisonous plant counterparts.

Within the same plant family, poison oak is another poisonous plant that should be avoided. There are two different poison oak species that grow in North America. Atlantic poison oak, found along the coastal plain and inland past the Mississippi basin, grows a shrub that can reach 3 feet tall. As for the Pacific poison oak, they grow on the West Coast and are in the form of a vine. Appearance is a huge difference based on the blooming season. During the spring and summer, the poison oaks’ leaves are a brilliant green, but by autumn they turn into a dull yellow with brown undertones. 

Poison sumac is the third misidentified poisonous plant. Unlike the other two, poison sumacs can grow up to 25 feet tall. Like the other two plants, poison sumac also takes on a shrub-like form, and can have vibrant red stems. Its leaves are oval-shaped, accompanied by sporadically placed clumps of tiny berries. 

Unfortunately, some might come into contact with any of these plants, getting poison onto their skin that causes an allergic reaction. Other than going to the doctor, there are many self-care remedies to treat the rash. Not scratching your rash is crucial to avoid getting the area infected. Some creams that can help alleviate the itchiness and redness would be cortisone or calamine creams. But if neither of the creams are on hand, soaking the rash in a cool bath with 100 grams of baking soda or an oatmeal-based product will be another alternative. 

Despite the inconvenience of these plants, they shouldn’t keep you from exploring the vast nature scene here in Santa Barbara. However, it’s important to be observant when out and about to avoid these plants in order to enjoy a refreshing hike. Go check out some cool hiking trails in Santa Barbara, and don’t forget to look out for the distinct features of these poisonous species!

Skip to content