Oak and Poison Oak in Photos: Can You Tell the Difference?

Oaks and Poison Oaks are often Found Together

Poison oak at base and climbing trunk of this white oak tree in Paso Robles, California.
Poison oak at base and climbing trunk of this white oak tree in Paso Robles, California. | Source

Oak and Poison Oak are Friends

As in the case of the tree in the photo above, you will very often find them together. On the tree above, which I saw on this late October day, it's fairly easy to tell what part is oak and which part is poison oak. But it's not always that easy. If you live in North San Luis Obispo County, where all these pictures were taken, you need to know the many habitats poison oak will choose and the many forms it takes. But it looks and behaves much the same way anywhere it is found in the West.


Comparing Baby Poison Oak and White Oak Plants

Baby poison oak plant. Notice the three-fold leaves and how shiny the plant is, with some tinges of red.
Baby poison oak plant. Notice the three-fold leaves and how shiny the plant is, with some tinges of red. | Source
White oak seedling: Although the leaves are lobed around the edges (or they may look like holly if they are live oaks), they are single leaves and have a more dull than shiny surface. They are often growing right next to poison oak.
White oak seedling: Although the leaves are lobed around the edges (or they may look like holly if they are live oaks), they are single leaves and have a more dull than shiny surface. They are often growing right next to poison oak. | Source

Poison Oak Flower and Berries

These flowers and berries are from the poison oak in my own yard.  You can make the picture much larger if you click it.
These flowers and berries are from the poison oak in my own yard. You can make the picture much larger if you click it. | Source
These berries were in the clump of poison oak under that tree in the top picture on this hub. You can see the berries better if you click the picture.
These berries were in the clump of poison oak under that tree in the top picture on this hub. You can see the berries better if you click the picture. | Source

The Many Forms of Poison Oak through the Seasons

Poison oak is a great survior and it spreads rapidly. It is planted by birds who eat its berries. It then spreads though its roots which creep along the ground and grow new stems. For this reason, young plants are often found near trees where the birds have dropped the seeds. I've found it under nut and fruit trees, as well as in oak forests. If it's in an area and producing berries, the birds will eat the berries and drop the seeds.

The young plants sprout and old ones spread and leaf out in the early spring and may have new leaves which are tinged with red. Later in the spring they will turn dark green, and female plants will produce clusters of white flowers, which will then turn into white or yellowish berries by summer or fall. The birds then eat the berries and continue to spread the seeds in their droppings. In the fall, the leaves turn a bright red as they prepare to leave the plant. In winter, the bare stems will stand up or stay wherever they were. Sometimes in a dry summer the leaves will turn red earlier because there's not enough water to support them.

Although the above is supposed to help you identify the plant through the seasons, take it with a grain of salt. Most of the pictures you see here were taken in the last week of October, unless otherwise noted. You will see that some are new leaves, some are bright green, some are deep green, and some are turning red. Some have flowers and no berries, and others have berries. I found most of my specimens with berries in the plant in the large picture at the top where it lives at the base of the large oak. I discovered flowers on one poison oak plant at home a couple of weeks ago, and only today did I see them turning into little reddish berries,which I assume will turn pale white or yellow. You will see them in the videos. Most of the plants I'm seeing now have neither flowers nor berries.

As far as identification goes, the old adage, "Leaves of Three, Let it Be," is probably the safest course. Poison oak leaves are divided into three leaflets on the same stem. But some wild berries are, too. Poison oak leaves will be shiny, though, whereas berry leaves won't be. Also, poison oak has a smooth stem and a wild berry will have thorny stems. If you are in doubt, don't take chances, since touching poison oak, which has a resin on all its plant parts, will cause dermatitis in most people that can be very unpleasant. Since the two plants often grow near each other, be careful about picking berries unless you're sure you can do it without touching any poison oak.

It's much easier to tell the difference between oak leaves and poison oak. Live oaks only have a single simple leaf on each stem. They will be dark green and will sometimes have a holly-like edge. They stay on the trees all year and are evergreen. But the deciduous white oaks found throughout the West, and other deciduous oaks, have lobed leaves that might seem similar to poison oak. Each oak leaf has its own stem, whereas the threefold leaf of poison oak has a single stem. It's one leaf that looks like three. In the videos I will show you two white oak babies and then some poison oak babies. I think you will find it easy to tell the difference. I also have examples in the pictures above.

If, in spite of your best efforts you cannot avoid getting poison oak (your dog brings it home, you fall into a clump of it, etc.) you might try one of the products below. I'm thinking I should get something to have here just in case, since as you see, I am surrounded by the plant, and I'm always afraid I might step on some leaves that have blown into a trail, thus getting it on my shoe.

Beautiful Poison Oak

This poison oak is climbing even higher in this tree than you can see here.  Oaks and poison oak are friends and will often be close to each other or entwined. All these shots are in October on Oak View Road except the last two in this section.
This poison oak is climbing even higher in this tree than you can see here. Oaks and poison oak are friends and will often be close to each other or entwined. All these shots are in October on Oak View Road except the last two in this section. | Source
This multi-color poison oak shows the diversity of color to be seen in October oak leaves.
This multi-color poison oak shows the diversity of color to be seen in October oak leaves. | Source
I'm not 100% sure these red plants among what might be coyote bushes here are poison oak. In fact it all might be poison oak. Since the two are often companions and the coyote bush never turns reddish, I'd be careful when approaching it.
I'm not 100% sure these red plants among what might be coyote bushes here are poison oak. In fact it all might be poison oak. Since the two are often companions and the coyote bush never turns reddish, I'd be careful when approaching it. | Source
Poison oak is beautiful. No question about it. But I would advise against putting any in your Thanksgiving table centerpiece.
Poison oak is beautiful. No question about it. But I would advise against putting any in your Thanksgiving table centerpiece. | Source
This is a typical side of the road display of poison oak in partial shade. Part of it is climbing up the trees, and part is lining the roadside, and part is creeping into the road.
This is a typical side of the road display of poison oak in partial shade. Part of it is climbing up the trees, and part is lining the roadside, and part is creeping into the road. | Source
Poison oak in January
Poison oak in January | Source
Poison Oak in July along Oak View Road in Templeton, California
Poison Oak in July along Oak View Road in Templeton, California | Source

Experience is the Best Teacher

Although I have lots of poison oak pictures, it's easier to show you poison oak in the field in its many forms. Most books I have only show you the leaves of three, and maybe a plant in bloom or with berries. You might see a young plant or a plant in fall with flaming leaves. But the weather in your region will largely determine how poison oak will appear in any given season. I live in a mild climate where the primary crop is grapes. It's very often hot and always dry in the summer months. Even today on Halloween, my tomatoes are still blooming and ripening fruit. Farther north and closer to the coast poison oak might match the field guide descriptions much better than it does here. In my videos I will attempt to show you all four seasons in one piece of property in the same hour.

The more experience you have in seeing poison oak in its various forms and understanding where it likes to grow, the better you will get at identifying it. Different plants may have the same shape leaves, but the plants themselves may appear as mounds in the distance, short weeds if they are young, or large or small shrubs if they are older. Sometimes parts of them might be confused with dead trees. If they are growing in a shaded forest, they may actually climb the trees, attaching to them with aerial roots, as in the top picture in this hub. The tree itself was so large it provided enough shade without other trees to enable the plant to climb.

To the right you see shots I took on a walk October 15 on Oak View Road in Templeton, a more recent walk than one I wrote about in an earlier hub. There were some lovely fall displays of poison oak we don't see earlier in the year. The top photo shows flaming poison oak climbing up this oak in search of sun. Below it we see a plant that can't make up its mind what color its leaves should be, as some are yellow and some are red. Or perhaps its more than one plant, since they like to live close together. There is coyote plant in bloom to the right of it and in back, some green leaves on the top left, and maybe we should also be careful about getting to close to those dead looking mossy branches to the lower left and underneath.

The other pictures in this group are pretty well explained in their captions. One plant is "iffy" but very suspicious from a distance. Another shows how poison oak can dominate the roadside, climbing up the trees as well as out toward the road. And watch those leaves on the ground. It's really easy for those falling poison oak leaves to get mixed with the leaves falling from those tall white oaks they are climbing on. And you don't want to step on them, do you?

In the three short videos below, I will walk you around parts of my property where we don't normally walk and where poison oak grows. I will show you enough poison oak up close and even in the distance, to give you enough experience to spot it anywhere near enough to see. Please forgive my shadow. I was too excited with what I was doing to pay attention to it all the time, and at other times if I had changed my position it would have gotten me too close to poison oak for comfort. I hope the videos will show you every form of poison oak up close and personal, so you can easily stay away from it. All parts of the poison oak -- leaves, stems, roots, berries -- have the urushiol oil that will come off on you, your clothes, and your shoes if you get too close. It is my belief, that I will treat as fact until I know differently, that even the parts that appear dead are dangerous. So, learn to recognize it and stay safe.

Poison oak is, indeed, beautiful in its scarlet autumn splendor, but please stick to maple, grape or sycamore to color your Thanksgiving centerpiece.


Learning to Recognize Poison Oak Part 1

Poison Oak ID: Flowers and Berries

Poison Oak Field Trip: Conclusion

The Most Dangerous Form of Poison Oak

As you can see, the bare stems from winter are just beginning to leaf out in mid-April. The bare stems are sticking out into the path where it might be easy to step on them, carrying the toxic oil home without knowing it.
As you can see, the bare stems from winter are just beginning to leaf out in mid-April. The bare stems are sticking out into the path where it might be easy to step on them, carrying the toxic oil home without knowing it. | Source
Here you see the tangled mass of bare stems. These have leaves. But look at the pattern and imagine seeing the bare stems with no leaves. It would be so easy to think this is ordinary brush when clearing trails, or walking through a forest.
Here you see the tangled mass of bare stems. These have leaves. But look at the pattern and imagine seeing the bare stems with no leaves. It would be so easy to think this is ordinary brush when clearing trails, or walking through a forest. | Source
Be sure to click to see the details of these poison oak plants almost hidden where the oak leaves have fallen around them in February. This was taken on Jack Creek Road in Paso Robles.
Be sure to click to see the details of these poison oak plants almost hidden where the oak leaves have fallen around them in February. This was taken on Jack Creek Road in Paso Robles. | Source

Recognizing Poison Oak

Do you feel confident enough after reading this and seeing the visual information that you can recognize poison oak?

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The Most Dangerous Form of Poison Oak

The most dangerous form of poison oak is that which is most likely not to be recognized -- those plants which have few or no leaves showing. You are most likely to encounter these in winter or in early spring before the plants grow their new leaves, but as I showed you in the videos, the dead branches, or those that appear to be dead, that appear under or through the leafy stems, can be present at any time of year. In the videos you saw some of them even covered with moss and lichens, yet they can still contain urushiol oil and give you a rash.

The pictures to your right show you some of the disguises you may encounter and not recognize. In the first picture taken in mid-April on a trail near the Salinas River, the bare stems actually stick out into the trail, making it easy for shoes or clothing or bare legs to make contact. At this time of year many of the trails have not yet been cleaned up, and can be dangerous if you don't keep a careful eye out for these bare stems and branches. Even the experienced outdoorsman in the video I have linked to above was fooled by the bare branches.

The man in that video said to watch out for the bare stems standing erect. But as you can see in my examples, they can also be bent down or almost parallel to the ground. So in the leafless months, you need to be especially careful of any bare branches of vines hanging from trees or tangled up in each other, or sticking up or out if they are in a place where poison oak might like to grow. In my county it grows at the side of trails and roads that have a lot of trees nearby -- especially oak trees. In the last example to the right, the oak leaves on the ground almost hide the small poison oak plants growing among them in the middle of February. If you see bare stems in clumps or coming from clumps, it's a danger zone -- especially if there are oak trees anywhere near.

I hope you have enjoyed this trek though the various poison oak habitats in videos and photographs and that you are now wise in all the ways of poison oak. Now go and enjoy the outdoors, but if you see those leaves of three, or those bare stems where they used to be, just back away and "leave them be."


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I'd love your feedback here. 21 comments

rambansal profile image

rambansal 5 years ago from India

Nice photos, narration and resources.. Thanks for sharing..


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

rambansal, thanks for stopping by to read and comment.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

What a great tutorial. I didn't know poison oak changed leaf color in Fall. Your photos are indeed more helpful than many I have seen in expensive books. Thank you WannaB.


TeriSilver profile image

TeriSilver 5 years ago from The Buckeye State

Interesting and informative ... great hub!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

Barb - Absolutely fascinating and so very well covered including your own videos!! Rated up and everything else except funny.

I had no idea what it even looked like and would probably be the dummy who would gather some up because it looked so beautiful and put it on the dining room table in a vase.

Very comprehensive and anyone, including me, will now know what to stay away from.

Well done!!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Hyphenbird, I was pretty amazed myself to see all four seasons in one hour on my property. I wrote this for two reasons. First, most of the information I was able to find on line or in books was more about how to treat poison oak that identify it. Second, I was hoping that if people knew more about how to identify it, they would not have such a need to treat it. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Teri, thanks for stopping by to read and comment. I hope the information was useful to you.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Audrey, If this will prevent you from getting one case of poison oak, I will be glad to have written it. I had learned to identify it before I moved here, since we lived within walking distance of a state park where our family often went for walks. When I got here, there was poison oak everywhere along the driveway until we got where the buildings were. Now the battle is to catch what the birds plant close to places we frequent and get rid of it while we can do it easily. So far I've been lucky enough not to have gotten it. Thank you for your ratings and comment.


tlpoague profile image

tlpoague 5 years ago from USA

This is a very helpful hub I was grateful to come across. I was cleaning out some trees in my yard this year and ended up getting into some poison oak and ivy. It is terribly painful and left a scar on my arms. Had I of read about it before, I might have prevented my accident. Thanks for sharing this.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

Very educational. I don't think i've ever seen any poison oak, but i'm highly allergic to poison ivy. Thank you for sharing..


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

tlpoague, I'm sorry you were taken by surprise. I hope you will now be able to prevent all future encounters with poison oak.

always exploring, thanks for joining me on this field trip and commenting. Maybe in your part of the country you only have poison ivy. It may be similarly invisible when it loses its leaves, though, so be careful of what you can't see, too.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

I live near Atlanta in Georgia and we have immense amounts of poison Ivy to which I am terribly allergic. The last two times I was exposed (10 and 15 years ago)I had intense systemic reactions that were so bad they put me on antibiotics and steroids for two weeks. Now of course I am extremely careful. Thanks for a great detailed and helpful Hub.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

If reading this helps at all to keep you from getting another outbreak, it will have been worth writing it. Thanks for your comment.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

A well informed hub on Oak and Poison Oak in Photos: Can You Tell the Difference?, and I found this title on another website so glad to have stopped by to learn more about this topic. You have done a fantastic job on this hub.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 3 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Thank you for your kind words. It's easy to write about and photograph poison oak because there is so much of it here. I even saw some sticking halfway across a sidewalk on a busy street near a hospital in San Luis Obispo last week. I couldn't believe it. I could just picture someone coming down that sidewalk in shorts with toddlers or a stroller and getting brushed with it. Who'd ever expect to find it in such a place? One always has to be cautious and know how to recognize it, I guess.


sehrm profile image

sehrm 3 years ago from Los Angeles

Really good comparison and identification techniques here!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 2 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Thank you, sehrm.


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laurelgord 5 months ago

Dear Barbara, I'm interest in using your gorgeous image of climbing poison oak in a website I'm working on. I would, of course attribute it to you. Here's the link to my website, which is about hiking in the Santa Monica mountains. www.wild-la.com. Would that be alright with you?


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 months ago from Templeton, CA Author

Thank you for asking. You may use it if you include a link back to http://hubpages.com/entertainment/Oak-and-Poison-O... in the caption. I tried to contact you through your website, but the contact link doesn't work.


SusanDeppner profile image

SusanDeppner 4 months ago from Arkansas USA

This will be helpful. I've never been sure about how to identify poison oak.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 3 months ago from Templeton, CA Author

It's definitely important to be able to identify it before you touch it. Our police department used parts of this hub on its internal website to help train search and rescue officers (with my permission.)

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