Fire Red

Poison oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

On Lyle Gordon’s recent trek into the Santa Lucia mountains in the Ventana Wilderness, he found yellow bigleaf maple, orange black oak and fire-red poison oak at peak.

Pacific or Western poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, thrives in chapparal, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands and mixed evergreen forests as found in the Ventana Wilderness. Several native animals including mule deer, western gray squirrels and California ground squirrels can eat the toxic plant that’s otherwise toxic to human touch. Domesticated animals such as livestock and dogs aren’t bothered by poison oak, but they can transmit its toxic oils by brushing up against the plant.

It is urushiol, an oil produced by poison oak, that coats its leaves and causes a painful and irritating rash following contact. Native Chumash people were able to apply urushiol in medicinal uses, though with caution.

Despite its notorious reputation, poison oak has beautiful autumn color, varying from auburn to vermilion, to fire red. Just look, don’t touch.

Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Black oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Brushy vegetation is normal in the fire-prone Ventana Wilderness. Its topography is characterized by steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges that separate v-shaped, youthful valleys, the US Forest Service describes.

Elevations vary from 600 feet where the Big Sur River drops out of the Wilderness to 5,570′ at its boundary near Junipero Serra Peak.

Fire is an integral part of this wilderness, so it has limited effect on vegetation other than to keep it stunted and struggling for all of the wilderness but a few virgin stands of coastal redwood that survive along the Big and Little Sur Rivers.

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Poison oak, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon

Bigleaf maple, Ventana Wilderness (10/29/21) Lyle Gordon