Learn What Poison Oak Looks Like

Pictures of Poison Oak to Help You Identify It From Other Plants

Identifying plants as poison oak or not is tricky. Poison oak is a great imitator. Its leaves take on the shape of those of other plants nearby. Even if you live in an area where poison oak grows everywhere, you may not know which plants to avoid. After a couple of bouts of poison oak rash, you will have an incentive to become an expert at spotting it along the trail, road, or sidewalk and in your own backyard.

Use these poison oak pictures to help you learn what it can look like and distinguish it from other plants. The key points to remember are that poison oak doesn't have thorns and it always has only three leaves on a stalk.


Leaves of Three, Let it Be

Poison oak growing on street corner in Pacific Grove, California

Wendy Bumgardner

The one thing that doesn't vary for poison oak is the pattern of three leaflets branching from a single, independent stem. Two leaves are attached directly to the stalk opposite each other. The third leaf juts out from them at a right angle, so the three-leaf pattern forms a triangle. There are no additional leaves on the same stalk.

The leaves may be serrated, round, or oak-like depending on what other foliage is around the poison oak plants. They may be shiny—or not. They may have a red tinge—or not. Be wary, or you're in for a week of itchy torture.

The plant itself may be seen as single stalks close to the ground with three leaves. Or a bush. Or a vine climbing a tree. You can see poison oak plants growing in all of these ways within a few feet of each other.

This photo is an example of poison oak growing profusely, almost as a hedge. You might think it was just another shrub as you passed by it at the street corner. This poison oak has rounded leaves rather than oak-shaped leaves, so you might not immediately think it is poison oak.

If you see that a plant has three leaves (and only three leaves) on each stem, that is your signal that it is poison oak.


Oak-Shaped Leaves on Poison Oak

Oak-Shaped Leaves on Poison Oak

Wendy Bumgardner

This poison oak plant shows oak-shaped leaves. You can tell it apart from oak in that they are in the characteristic leaves-of-three pattern for poison oak. Don't touch it.


Round Leaves on Poison Oak

Poison Oak with Rounded Leaves

Wendy Bumgardner

The round-shaped leaves on this poison oak plant imitate those of the nearby trees. But note that it has the distinctive leaves-of-three pattern. Leave it alone.


Shiny Poison Oak Leaves

Poison Oak - Leaves of Three

Wendy Bumgardner

Poison oak may look oily and shiny due to the toxic oil urushiol that can give you the rash when it contacts your skin. But the leaves don't have to look shiny. They can still give you a dose of oil if they have a dull appearance.

If you come into contact with the leaves, wash the area as soon as possible with cool running water and soap. It's fine to rinse in a stream if you are in the woods.

The good news is that poison oak isn't contagious, except when spread by the oil remaining on your garments, gear, or skin.


Poison Oak in Bloom

Poison Oak in Bloom

Wendy Bumgardner

Poison oak blooms are small white flowers, which may develop into greenish or tan berries.


Red Poison Oak Leaves in Autumn

Red Poison Oak in Autumn

Wendy Bumgardner

Poison oak leaves may turn a brilliant red in autumn as the bush dies back. Do not collect these leaves for decorations.


Poison Oak Is an Imitator

Poison Oak Imitates Nearby Leaves

Wendy Bumgardner

In this picture, you see poison oak leaves that have taken on the round shape of the bush next to it.


Poison Oak vs. Blackberry Vines

Poison Oak with Blackberry Vine

Wendy Bumgardner

Blackberry vines may appear to have only three leaves but usually have five. A key point is that wild blackberry vines develop thorns.

Poison oak will only have three leaves on a stem, and the stem will not have any thorns. If it is growing next to blackberries, the shape of the leaves will imitate blackberry.

Poison oak is on the left and blackberry is on the right. Look closely at the stem for thorns on the blackberry vines. Also note that blackberry leaves are serrated, with jagged edges for each small vein. Poison oak leaves may be notched but they are not serrated like a saw.


Not Poison Oak—Maple Leaves

Maple Leaves - Not Poison Oak

Wendy Bumgardner

These are maple leaves. They are not poison oak. The large leaves have three major lobes and two minor ones.


Oak—Not Poison Oak

Oak - Not Poison Oak

Wendy Bumgardner

These oak-like leaves are probably oak, and definitely not poison oak. They are in a whorl of five leaves rather than a triangle of three leaves.


Round Leaves That Are Not Poison Oak

Vine with Round Leaves

Wendy Bumgardner

This picture shows a bush that has round leaves that are not in groups of three. It's not poison oak, but any poison oak next to it will imitate the round leaves.


Poison Oak or Not?

Poison Oak or Blackberry?

Wendy Bumgardner

Blackberry or poison oak? The three-leaf pattern is like poison oak. If there are any thorns on the stem, it is more likely to be blackberry. The leaves look serrated—or do they? Better safe than sorry—leave it be.


Shiny or Red Oregon Grape Is Not Poison Oak

Red Oregon Grape - Not Poison Oak

Wendy Bumgardner

This is Oregon's state flower, the Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium. It's shiny, but the leaf pattern is all wrong for it to be poison oak. It has more than three leaves per stalk. Some people identify poison oak by its red color in autumn. But here, Oregon grape is imitating red poison oak.


Poison Oak Close-Up

Poison Oak
Ed Reschke/Creative RF/Getty Images

This picture of classic poison oak can make you itchy just looking at it. But looking won't give you a rash, you'd have to touch it or be exposed to the smoke if it burns, which can transmit the toxic oil.

To avoid getting a poison oak rash, the first step is not coming into contact with the leaves. Wear long sleeves and long pants and wear impermeable gloves if you are going to be working around poison oak or hiking in an area with poison oak.

Wash as soon as possible with cool water and a degreasing soap (such as dishwashing soap) if you have had possible contact with poison oak. Be sure to wash under your fingernails. You may also rinse with rubbing alcohol or a specialized poison plant wash.

You need to thoroughly clean your clothing and gear before you wear or use it and you should use gloves when doing so. You may need to wash your dog or cat if your pet has tromped through the poison oak. You can use pet shampoo and cool water. Be sure to wear rubber gloves.

If you manage to get a rash, learn how to treat it.

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  1. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac: Tips for managing. American Academy of Dermatology

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