poison oak and "chumash ethnobotany"

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Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 4, 2012 - 08:07pm PT
we've been doing the usual squawking about poison oak this time of year. going down the backbone trail recently, i was struck by how absolutely unavoidable the stuff is. yes, the trail is kept fairly clear, but it keeps growing back, growing in from the sides, disguising itself (it's sneaky that way) by mimicking the leaf patterns of other plants growing around it.

one of the things which came up in ST discussion is how sensitivity to this nasty flora varies from person to person. another is the reported approach, confirmed by euell gibbons, a major authority on wild plants and foraging, that the actual, controlled ingestion of the dreaded plant can build up one's resistance. this was also reported by a topoan who told of a rancher near santa cruz who had overcome his sensitivity by eating it.

anyway, i'd like to add the following, which will at the same time plug an excellent book for any southern californian interested in nature, the plants you see every time you hike a trail, and the heritage of the remarkable people who preceded us here and whose descendants are still among us.

from chumash ethnobotany by jan timbrook, excerpts on poison oak:

this is an appropriate place to remind the reader that i do not endorse any of the remedies discussed in this book. the chumash regarded poison oak as a useful medicinal plant, both applied externally and drunk as a tea.

mission documents from the early 19th century describe plasters of "yedra" ... as very effective in healing wounds. the priest at san luis obispo himself had seen a man who had been badly lacerated by a bear healed only with an application of powdered poison oak ...

as a treatment for severe dysentery or diarrhea, the root of poison oak was boiled, being careful not to allow the vapor to get into the eyes, lest blindness result ...

although many anglo-americans develop severe dermatitis ... this seems not to have been the problem for many indian people. indians may have had some degree of natural immunity to urushiol, the active component; perhaps they were also willing to tolerate a certain level of discomfort ...

... different indian groups had varying susceptibility to poison oak. the yokuts, a neighboring inland group, were said to be severely affected by it when they visited the coast, but the local chumash were affected little or not at all ...

immunity seems to have diminished with the proportion of chumash ancestry ...

by the late 1950s, chumash descendants no longer made any medicinal use of poison oak but eagerly sought remedies for its effects ... mugwort has now come to be regarded as a specific for poison oak rash.

some individuals claim that immunity can be obtained by spitting on the plant or by drinking a decoction of boiled poison oak root. others who do not get the rash believe that their practice of eating a poison oak leaf now and then has made them immune ...

as i said previously, i have no personal plans other than to continue my practice of visual avoidance, which has worked well for me the past 30 years in california. i spend most of my time on established trails, and i strategize my bushwhacking to avoid it. but i can't help but conclude, for those who have to live with it closely, like the chumash or that santa cruz rancher, that visual avoidance is only going to take you so far.

chumash ethnobotany is a treasure, available through the natural history museum in santa barbara, where timbrook is a resident anthropologist. poison oak isn't the only plant in there.

Credit: Tony Bird

timbrook had her work cut out for her. she compiled this accessible and lucid book from material developed by a legendary ethnographer, john harrington. the photo page of harrington and his informants is as rich a look into the california past as you'll see anywhere.

Credit: Tony Bird
jmes

climber
Jul 4, 2012 - 08:17pm PT
I was hoping this thread would reference timbrook. Having read some of harrington's notes, she did a fantastic job in this book.
Radish

Trad climber
SeKi, California
Jul 4, 2012 - 08:26pm PT
I have read that the amount of the urishnol oil on the head of a pin will infect 500 people. Powerful stuff whatever the amount! Someone told me about poision oak honey just the other day. Several swear that it will build your imunites to the oak.
Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 4, 2012 - 09:03pm PT
there's a difference between infection and irritation--and your 500 people would have to be 500 sensitive people. of course, nowadays that would be most people.

however the fact that the chumash had a pretty good immunity going seems to indicate that the resistance can develop and be transferred from one generation to the next. i think the reported success of non-indian people developing their own resistance means there's room for new research in this area.
juar

Sport climber
socal
Jul 4, 2012 - 09:35pm PT
wonder if their going to say this about epoxy someday?
dfinnecy

Social climber
'stralia
Jul 4, 2012 - 10:56pm PT
I'm still really intrigued by this, if I were in an area with PO I would be thinking 'bioassay' at this point. That's just me though.
MisterE

Social climber
Jul 4, 2012 - 11:40pm PT
Skip is very interested in SoCal regional botanical studies - I am going to get her a copy as a gift.

Edit: OK, found it cheaper than $418.00 - thanks for the book heads-up, Tony. A link for those interested would help the sticker-shock of the immediate search.
Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 5, 2012 - 12:15am PT
i bought mine at the new interpretive center at las virgenes and mulholland--paid full price, $27.95. nice place there too with lots of info, but i've already groused about the architecture.

you can also get it at the natural history museum in santa barbara:

http://store.sbnature.org/catalog/index.php?cPath=21_29

timbrook conducts occasional plant hikes under the auspices of the museum--would be great to catch one sometime.
juar

Sport climber
socal
Jul 5, 2012 - 12:28am PT
has anyone else noticed that
the poison oak in the foothills is far more toxic than what you run into above a couple thousand feet or more?

Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jul 5, 2012 - 01:49am PT
The Sherpas and Tibetan people eat stinging nettles and I have as well. Once they are boiled, they lose their stinging property and taste like spinach. I wonder if it isn't the same for the Chumash? The plant molecules would be the same but no longer be recognized as poisonous by the immune system?

Treatment for severe dyssentary makes me think it was effective for killing amoebas. Many of the drugs used for that from - arsenic to metronidazole, work by making the host sick but killing the parasites. Likewise poison oak on a wound would kill any infection and probably stimulate blood to go to that area

The Sherpas had two plants in the Aconitum family, one of which they said was good medicine and the other of which would kill you. When given to rats in a lab in France that's exactly what happened.
Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 5, 2012 - 01:53am PT
stinging nettle, at least the ones hereabouts and in europe, cause far less agony than poison oak or poison ivy. a brush against exposed skin will result in itching that lasts maybe 5-10 minutes. yes, you can harvest it easily with gloves--boil up the water before you put the nettle leaves in, then boil and serve like spinach. an italian chef friend of mine likes to use it in frittata. quite nutritious, they say.
Salamanizer

Trad climber
The land of Fruits & Nuts!
Jul 5, 2012 - 02:42am PT
has anyone else noticed that
the poison oak in the foothills is far more toxic than what you run into above a couple thousand feet or more?


Yes, it seems to grow far more concentrated with smaller leaves and a shinier texture than you tend to find at higher elevations. I've seen the stuff anywhere from a short ground cover, maybe a couple inches to a full on ivy choking out a massive Black Walnut tree with hanging vines and a stock six inches wide.

Up at higher elevations (like lower Merced) it's bad, but not that bad. Tends to be alot more difficult to get as well.


Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Jul 5, 2012 - 03:18am PT
There must be scientific studies of the various species and subspecies of poison oak?

Randisi

Social climber
Dalian, Liaoning
Jul 5, 2012 - 08:28am PT

stinging nettle, at least the ones hereabouts

California has stinging nettles?
Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 5, 2012 - 09:51am PT
i've heard pretty bad reports of the p.o. on the way to castle rock in sequoia np. generally in the mountains, it seems to stop a little above 5,000 feet.

the plant can manifest itself differently even within a few feet of itself, from very short cover to large bushes to, as salamanizer says, vines too big around for tarzan. it'll also be in bright red autumn-like phase next to the shiny, oily green of spring--saw both types just last week, right next to each other.

the mimicry of the leaves can also be pretty amazing, from very oaklike to nearly oval, all in close proximity. a beautiful, clever plant in many ways. as with squirrels, you can hate them, but you have to admire them.

stinging nettle can be found all over, once you begin to recognize its dark, ragged leaves. many foragable plants came over to the u.s. from europe, and i don't think the natural history is very authoritative at this point. i don't remember miner's lettuce in the midwest, but was introduced to it as a favorite trailside snack when i came to california. i've read that it originally comes from eurasia, which is hinted at in what timbrook has to say:

seeds of miner's lettuce, which closely resemble those of red maids (calandrinia), were a traditional food of the chumash. surprisingly, none of harrington's consultants actually described eating fresh raw leaves of miner's lettuce, though many other california peoples did and continue to do so. they did say that the leaves were boiled and eaten. this practice may have been introduced in historic times, however, for there is little evidence that the chumash formerly ate cooked greens.

the illustrations by chris chapman are another delight of this terrific book:

Credit: Tony Bird
justthemaid

climber
Jim Henson's Basement
Jul 5, 2012 - 10:07am PT
I'm psyched the hubby is getting me a copy. I'll pass on a cup of PO tea though.

California has stinging nettles?


Yup- several species. They are pretty much anywhere you have water, although I don't often run into it locally. If I recall correctly.. I believe nettles are actually non-native and were introduced from Europe. Tough, prolific buggers - they are all over the US now. Don't get me started on tumbleweed ;)

Edit: Simul-posted about the nettles with Tony^^
hooblie

climber
from out where the anecdotes roam
Jul 5, 2012 - 10:08am PT
i've provided guidance to visitors from out of state on a few occasions as to the many guises that poison oak takes. one's credibility can be stretched even before introduction to the leafless sprigs. maybe this thread could serve as a rogues gallery of portraits taken in the field
Tony Bird

climber
Northridge, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 5, 2012 - 10:18am PT
aw, go ahead skip--get started on tumbleweed.
justthemaid

climber
Jim Henson's Basement
Jul 5, 2012 - 10:18am PT
I'll have to start keeping a photo-journal... poison oak's ability to mimic neighboring plants and change leaf shape and form is pretty remarkable. Insidious stuff. Makes you wonder what mechanism of nature enables that happen. It's not like the plants have eyes to look at their neighbor and say: "Hey- I like that leaf ya got there... I think I'll try it on..."

Anyone who has climbed at the Grotto at Echo Cliffs has probably seen the huge vining PO that is like.. 35 feet tall growing next to the slab.
Pretty darn imressive
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Jul 5, 2012 - 10:48am PT
Good stuff y'all! Not to put too fine a point on it but I question the use
of 'mimicry' here. Typically mimicry involves an evolutionary strategy.
Is that really the case here or is it more of a 'convergence'? And, being
a near total botanical n00b, I wonder if these seemingly different PO types
are actually sub-species.
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