Joy Magazine

Passion for poison oak

Sandra Baker jokes around with some poison oak on her property on Coleman Creek Road.Photo by Jamie Lusch

Sandra Baker has pursued a passion for gardening most of her life, living in rural areas of California and, since 1990, in Southern Oregon. She never imagined she would become an authority on poison oak, but she says the role was forced on her.

"In Santa Cruz, I realized I lived with a rash somewhere on my body for five years straight," she says. "I figured it was my destiny. Somehow, wherever I've lived, I've lived with it (poison oak) ever since."

In the 1970s, Baker wrote a 40-page booklet to help others through their encounters with poison oak. Then in 2008, she decided to expand it into a book.

"It never dawned on me it would take three and a half years," she says with a laugh. "I started Googling, and I couldn't stop — I kept finding more."

The result is Baker's new, self-published book, "The Poison Oak & Poison Ivy Survival Guide: A Rash-Taming, Mystery-Solving Romp Through These Amazing Plants." It's published by her own company, Coleman Creek Press, and is available for $14.95 on

Baker's research revealed that the Internet is bursting with inaccurate information about poison oak and ivy. She thought there was too much folklore and not enough science, so she decided to delve into scientific and clinical studies. She searched for multiple studies that agreed with each other and hadn't been debunked by other studies, then put the resulting information in easily readable and often amusing form.

"I learned poison ivy has a long history in America from the very first colonists," she says.

Colonists believed people caught the rashes from the air. The first settlers thought poison ivy was such a beautiful plant they sent samples back to England. Early physicians started using poison ivy as medicine and administered extracts of it for conditions ranging from sciatica and pneumonia to cholera and herpes. While early doctors may have been misguided, modern-day researchers are interested in the way that allergenic oils of poison oak and ivy stimulate the human immune system, and they are researching it as a possible medicine for cancer.

Baker, 71, was intensely interested in getting the chapter on identifying the plants just right. The many illustrations created by Baker's son, Dan Paine, spotlight poison oak and ivy from leaf tip down the stem and through the seasons so readers can tell whether they are dealing with allergenic plants.

The famous adage "leaves of three, let it be" is a little vague, says Baker, so she explains the lengths of stems, the positions of leaves on the stems, the variations in the base of stems, as well as how to differentiate these plants from eight look-alikes.

Baker also wrote a chapter on remedies and whether they work.

"I go into remedies a lot in respect to how they are applied — what their particular effect is. You may need something soothing for a minor rash but something else entirely for dealing with blisters of a serious rash. I list most of the commercial remedies available and talk about their effects and also list quite a few herbal remedies," she says.

"Everybody's different," she says. "Some can use products to block the oil from their skin; others need a product to remove the oil from the skin or a product for when it just starts to itch depending on where you get it."

But Baker related much more, including an analysis of exactly what happens in the human body when you get an allergic reaction to something.

One thing she learned was that mango is a fruit that cross-reacts with poison oak. If you are allergic to one, you are probably allergic to both, so anyone highly allergic to poison oak should stay away from mango products.

"This was a very impulsive thing I did," says Baker, who lives in the hills between Phoenix and Talent. "Although I read a lot, I'm not a sit-at-the-computer person — I'm a gardener. But even though I spent hours and hours every day writing, I loved it. I was finding out so many exciting things about the plants."

Baker cites her husband of 30 years, David, with being her mainstay.

"He was very patient and supportive through the whole thing," she says.

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