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Oak vs. Poison Oak: Can You Tell the Difference? (With Photos)

Barb's hobbies are photography and studying nature. She gardens and takes photo walks to explore nature and capture it on camera.

Poison oak and oaks are often found together. You can see poison oak at the base and climbing the trunk of this white oak tree in Paso Robles, California.

Poison oak and oaks are often found together. You can see poison oak at the base and climbing the trunk of this white oak tree in Paso Robles, California.

Did You Know That Oak and Poison Oak Are Friends?

As in the case of the tree in the photo above, you will very often find oak and poison oak together. On the tree above, 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. It looks and behaves much the same way anywhere in the West.

The Many Forms of Poison Oak in Every Season

Poison oak is a great survivor and spreads rapidly. It is planted by birds who eat its berries. It then spreads through 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 photos above and below are supposed to help you identify the plants through the seasons, take them 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.

Leaves of Three, Let It Be

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.

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Read More From Skyaboveus

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 at 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 article. The tree itself was so large it provided enough shade without other trees to enable the plant to climb.

In the photos above, you'll see shots I took on a walk in October on Oak View Road in Templeton, a more recent walk than one I wrote about in an earlier article. 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 the 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 it's more than one plant, since they like to live close together. There is a coyote plant in bloom to the right of it and in the back, some green leaves on the top left, and maybe we should also be careful about getting too 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?

Poison Oak Part 1: Learning to Recognize It

In the three short videos above and 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 about 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 it 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.

Poison Oak Part 2: ID Flowers and Berries

Poison Oak Part 3: Field Trip and Conclusion

The Most Dangerous Form of Poison Oak: Bare or Dead Branches

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 below 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.

Keep an Eye Out Above and Below

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 through 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."

Recognizing Poison Oak

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Barbara Radisavljevic


Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 03, 2016:

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.)

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on October 05, 2016:

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

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on September 21, 2016:

Thank you for asking. You may use it if you include a link back to in the caption. I tried to contact you through your website, but the contact link doesn't work.

laurelgord on September 17, 2016:

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. Would that be alright with you?

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on March 10, 2014:

Thank you, sehrm.

sehrm from Los Angeles on January 29, 2014:

Really good comparison and identification techniques here!

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on July 17, 2013:

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.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 16, 2013:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 13, 2011:

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

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on November 13, 2011:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 08, 2011:

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.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on November 08, 2011:

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..

Tammy on November 08, 2011:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 08, 2011:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 08, 2011:

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

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 08, 2011:

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.

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on November 08, 2011:

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!!

Teri Silver from The Buckeye State on November 08, 2011:

Interesting and informative ... great hub!

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on November 08, 2011:

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.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 07, 2011:

rambansal, thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

Ram Bansal from India on November 07, 2011:

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

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