Each month, we look at a different plant that is an integral part of our home Biodynamic ranch ecology at Frey Vineyards. While we cultivate grapes, we also have a surrounding biodiversity reserve. Between the wild lands and the cultivated vines, we have a transitional hedgerow zone bordering the vineyards.
October’s Herbal Highlight from the hedgerow is the formidable poison oak. We’re highlighting this herb now because the fall colors are visually stunning as the oak leaves change over the course of autumn: a diverse palette of golds, oranges, and reds. If you are from the West Coast, you've likely already encountered this native plant. Many are familiar with the adage, “Leaves of three, let it be,” because touching the oily leaves, stems, or roots of the Toxicodendron plant can cause an itchy rash.
However, you might not yet know the whole story. Many people do not develop a skin condition after touching this plant. In fact, the Pomo tribe, the Native Americans in this area of Mendocino County, have a surprising history of using the extracted juice to make a dark black ink for tattoos.
There are few plants as helpful to ecosystems as this ground oak. When a forest is logged or clearcut, it's one of the first responders, sending out deep roots to hold the soil in place and helping prevent further erosion. Deep root systems also make it nearly impossible to clear poison oak out of an area. Sometimes they extend for yards underground. For these reasons, many have renamed the plant “Protector” or “Guardian” oak.
The seeds are also an important source of nutrition for birds during colder months. When food is scarce in Winter, a plethora of these plant’s seeds can still be found, a valuable benefit at an important time for both local and migrating bird species.
The next time you are hiking and come upon an impressive patch of Guardian oak, perhaps pause to appreciate that you're in the presence of a valuable ally —one that requires respect and deserves to be understood as an asset to the landscape.
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