Leaves of three? Seek them out.

Leaves of three?
Leave them be.

Anyone who has lived near poison oak or poison ivy (which probably means almost anyone in the North America) has grown up with that rhyme.

Of course once you start doing much hiking you realize there are many plants with “Leaves of three” which aren’t Poison Oak or Ivy.

BrambleLeafBrambles are probably the most common. And while brushing against a bramble vine isn’t really a problem, anyone who has hiked through a bramble thicket will agree that they should also be left alone. Quite a number of other species in the rose family have leaves of three, some of which are relatively harmless to blunder through.

CloverLeafThere is also a genus named “Leaves of three”, or Trifolium in latin. But the clovers are quite innocuous. Various other legumes also have a trifoil leaf pattern, but none causes dermatitis.

A friend of mine does landscape restoration and is working on a project at City College. They have been tasked by the local basket-weavers to provide an area for growing the textile plants used by the Chumash. Many of these are rushes, most of which are easy to find. But one is a sumac.

This plant seems to have been eradicated from the front country, and my friend didn’t know where to find it. But it is actually fairly common in the back country. I made a little map of where I’d seen it (click on the map to make it legible), and then offered to get her some twigs to root when I next went into the back country.

RhusLeavesNow when I was a child, poison oak was placed in the sumac genus. And this particular sumac is called Rhus trilobata, or three-leaved sumac. In other words it looks almost exactly like poison oak. It’s leaves are a bit smaller, but that’s about it. If the flowers were blooming they’d be easy to distinguish, but they aren’t blooming now. In fact the best time for rooting these plants is when they are dormant — when all the leaves have dropped off in the autumn. Which makes them a bit tricky to identify. One stick looking very like another. Luckily I know exactly where some patches are.

Now I’m not supposed to go harvesting from the National Forest, but this patch was encroaching on the trail so I was actually doing trail maintenance. When I got to my patch I saw that this fiction was well founded as there where signs that it had been hacked back in the past.

I took out my snips a collected 8 springs, each about as thick around as a pencil.

One of the common names for this plant is “skunkbush”. I’d never known why before, but I figured it out by holding a bundle of it in front of me for an hour as I ran down the mountain. It’s a strange smell, not really like a skunk, but sort of musty…

When I finally got home I placed them in water. A bouquet of dormant twigs.


2 Responses to “Leaves of three? Seek them out.”

  1. Adger Says:

    This bouquet puts me in mind of Terry Pratchett’s Masquerade, where there is a symbolically significant bouquet of rose twigs.

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