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Beware of Dog: The Little-Known Story of the Poodle-Dog Bush and Its Nasty Bite

Ever hear of poodle-dog bush? Not many people have, but don't let the plant's cuddly name fool you. Touching it can trigger an intense skin reaction as miserable as anything poison oak or poison ivy can induce.

Its range is limited to Southern California, so if you’re in the area—maybe passing through on the Pacific Crest Trail this spring—it’s smart to know how to identify this nasty plant with the perversely cute-sounding name.

From a safe distance, I got a look at the beast during a recent visit to SoCal. Kerry Johnston, a botanist with the Angeles National Forest (which includes the San Gabriel Mountains and other wild terrain north of Los Angeles), showed me a spot where poodle-dog bush is flourishing. Here’s what I learned:

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Botanist Kerry Johnston stands next to a robust poodle-dog bush near Big Tujunga Canyon in Southern California's Angeles National Forest. (Photo: T.D. Wood)

The REI Blog: I've read that poodle-dog seeds lay dormant until fire hits them. This forest got scorched big-time by the Station Fire of 2009 (251 square miles burned). Is that why the bush is suddenly so widespread here?

Johnston: Some seeds have certain dormancy cues and they require exact conditions to germinate. This is one of those times when a plant was waiting for those right conditions. This plant is a fire-follower, and when it goes, it goes crazy.

REI: Is it everywhere in this forest?

Johnston: It is scattered throughout the burned area. It’s found at certain elevations, above 3,500 feet and below about 7,000. It’s not everywhere. In places untouched by fire you won’t find it. But in some places it’s pretty dense. The Big Tujunga Canyon area is particularly affected.

REI: The Pacific Crest Trail passes through there?

Johnston: Yes.

REI: What do you know about the plant?

Johnston: The scientific name was recently changed to Eriodictyon parryi. Its old name was Turricula parryi. It is a sub-shrub, meaning it’s not a perennial—it’s not going to complete its lifecycle in 2 years. It’s not going anywhere right now. I’m assuming after the canopy closes and the shrubs start taking over, it will just die back. We’re just watching to see when. When is that going to happen? 

We work around it all the time, and it makes it difficult getting to all these planting units [where seedlings are being planted to restore the forest] because you’re trying to go around it and avoid it, and it’s made doing that really difficult.

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Johnston uses a pen to give perspective to the size of poodle-bush leaves. Note the dried remains of a flower stalk in the upper-right. (Photo: T.D. Wood)

REI: Have you had a skin reaction after touching it?

Johnston: The first time I got it was in 2005. I was in the San Bernardino National Forest, working on tree planting in a post-fire area, the Heaps Peak area. I was walking through fields of it, pushing through bushes that were 7 feet tall. A week later I’m back in the office doing reports and I had this weird rash. My boss says, “I think that’s poison oak.” I said, no, I wasn’t in poison oak. I told him what I was in. He knew a little about it and was severely allergic. He said, "Oh, no!"

REI: What was it like?

Johnston: It formed yellow-green, blistery-looking pustules that were oozing. I’d want to keep itching it, so it would bleed. One night it was itching so bad I was scratching my arm on the wall while I was asleep. My husband shook me to wake me up. I was scratching it on the wall in my sleep. How terrible is that?

It takes about 3 to 5 days for symptoms to appear. Once I had it, it lasted about a month.

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Some poodle-dog bush branches rise above Johnston's head. (Photo: T.D. Wood)

REI: Ugh. How does it compare to poison oak?

Johnston: When I saw my doctor with the reaction that I got, he said it’s pretty much the exact reaction to poison oak. A lot of doctors I talked to didn’t know what the shrub was. They had never heard of it. It would be a good thing for someone to look into it. I would think that would be a great study.

With poodle-dog, it’s the tiny hairs on the plant—on the leaves, the stalks, the flowers—that cause a reaction, whereas with poison oak it’s the oils. It’s a chemical component within the hairs.

That’s very typical of its plant family, Boraginaceae [aka the waterleaf family]. Plants have these irritating hairs. Some people get a reaction, some people can walk through it just fine. Every individual is different. You really don’t know how you are going to react.

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Poodle-dog bush as it prepares to flower. (Angeles Nat'l Forest photo: Scott Lowden)

REI: Did you get it again when working around it on this forest?

Johnston: I got a bad rash with pustules my first year or working around it here, in 2011. The year after that, I really had no rash. I have had no rash this year. I think my body is somewhat resistant to it, but I don’t know for sure. I really think it depends on the individual.

I can touch it now. But I try not to. There are times when you’re trying to walk over it that it will slap up and hit you. When you’re working on this forest, you’re going to come into contact with it.

My advice is if you think you’ve made contact and you think you have some signs or symptoms, definitely go consult a medical expert.

REI: How can you identify it?

Johnston: It’s good to study some pictures. The leaves are narrow and have a resinous appearance. See how tufted these leaves are? They’re really densely matted. The old leaves that just whither and crumble.

Brown leaves near the bottom of a plant are last year’s growth. The bush keeps sloughing off the old stuff and growing new leaves. Even though the leaf and flower stalk are dead, I believe the chemical compound in those hairs is still persistent.

REI: In a way it resembles marijuana.

Johnston: I’ve heard other people say that. Some of the plants grow to be massive, but scraggly individual plants are more common. It can grow 6, 8, 10 feet high.

REI: In pictures, it looks pretty when it blooms.

Johnston: It’s so beautiful when it flowers. Look how long these flower stalks are. People have collected them in bouquets. They’ll break off the stalks, collect them and carry them around like a big flower bunch.

The flowers have glands that are fragrant, or ill-scented. You can smell it before you even see it. It smells pretty to some people. The glands are sticky. If they touch you or your clothing, you’ll have a gummy feeling where they made contact.

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Poodle-dog in bloom. (Angeles Nat'l Forest photos above and below: Thalia Ryder)

The purple flowers are magnificent. [Common blooming time is May to June.] When the sun hits them, they are beautiful. That’s why people want to come and pick the flowers, but they have no idea what’s going to happen after that.

One day I saw a gentleman rubbing his hands and brushing the flowers as he was walking along a road, like he was petting them. I said, "Sir, do you know what you’re touching?" Then I asked him if he has had reactions to poison oak. He said yes. I said in about 3 to 5 days if you start breaking out in a rash that’s comparable to poison oak, I think you better go see a doctor.

REI: Why not have trail crews hack the stuff down or pull it out?

Johnston: You don’t want to do that. It’s actually a native plant. People think it’s evil, but that’s just because humans can’t agree with it. It’s valuable for soil stabilization. It’s basically a place-holder. We think it’s great for that purpose. 

It’s out-competing the weeds, it’s holding the soil where the native shrubs need to keep resprouting. It’s good for steep slopes and ridges. It’s holding the soil together. After a fire it prevents soil from just washing down when it rains. It may not be agreeable with us, but it’s good for a native plant like this to be out here. It’s serving its purpose.

REI: What if you spot it on a trail and there’s no easy way around or through it?

Johnston: I would go to another trail.

If you’ve come to an area where you can’t avoid it and you have to go through it, my best bet would be to do a sweeping motion with your leg. Push down on the main stalk with the sole of your boot and step over and around it. That’s better than pushing through it with your arms.

REI: Got any other hints for dealing with it?

Johnston: Don’t go hiking in shorts or flip-flops. Wear long pants and long sleeves. Those will help quite a bit.

I typically don’t wash my field gear with my other clothing. I have a family with children. Sometimes I’ll come home and they’ll say "Mommy, mommy!" and want to do is hug my legs. I have to stop them. My 4-year-old even knows Turricula. She’ll say, “Poodle-bog bush! Oh, no!” She’s seen me itch.

We carry Tecnu in our field backpacks, just in case. It’s a topical solution for poison oak or poison ivy. It’s useful for poodle-dog. It helps wash away anything before it gets established.

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Poodle-dog flourishing in a burn area. (Angeles Nat'l Forest photo: Scott Lowden)

REI: You believe the plant will eventually disappear?

Johnston: It will fade away. It’s just a question of when, and that’s the question everyone keeps asking: When?

We keep waiting. Some people have guessed 5-10 years. We’re out here every year, hoping this is the year. Right now, it’s not going anywhere.

Note to trail users: Scott Lowden, battalion chief of the Angeles National Forest’s L.A. River District, says trail closure signs will be posted at trailheads wherever 2 key threats imperil hikers: falling snags from fire-scorched trees and large growths of poodle-dog bush. Lowden, who endured his own month-long battle with a poodle-dog rash, says areas within the forest most vulnerable to trail closure are Alder Saddle, Chilao and the North Fork Ranger Station.

PCT hikers can turn to the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website for trail condition updates. This UC Berkeley site provides scientific details about the plant and a distribution map. The site also mentions Yerba Santa, which is a nonpoisonous plant that closely resembles poodle-dog bush.

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So pretty, so nasty: poodle-dog bush in bloom. (Angeles NF photo: Thalia Ryder)

Posted on at 12:45 PM

Tagged: Angeles National Forest, poisonous plants, poodle-dog and poodle-dog bush

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czaplick

http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/1080-6032/PIIS1080603213000045.pdf

A review article in press on Poodle Dog Bush.

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Retired Software Guy

The article cited by czaplick costs about $30. Free if you're associated with an institution that has a subscription.

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Retired Software Guy

Last weekend we hiked Mt Wilson-Strayn's Cyn-West Fork-Devore-Newcomb Pass-Mt Wilson. The hills were covered in PDB. In many places PDB crowded the trail Despite my best effort, I bumped my hand and shin into a bush at one of the overgrown stream crossings between West Fork and Devore. It immediately stung like a nettle. I had some alcohol wipes which seemed to help a bit, but the stinging sensation persisted and gradually increased. By the time I got home I had swelling at the points of contact. When we got home I applied some prescription cortisone cream which, luckily, we had around from a previous encounter with poison oak. Within 4 hours the swelling was gone. That was 3 days ago. Since then there have been no further symptoms.

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TJF

One of the best articles I've read on the Brutal Poodle.

Although, there aren't many written about this crazy plant. Yeah...it has a relatively small range but it's one of those plants that has such a specific purpose, and life cycle, that you think, "Man...nature has it all figured out."

A few years ago after backpacking in the Angeles National Forest I started breaking out on my arms. I had no idea what it was because I was above the elevation where poison oak grows. I started looking around and learned what I should have known in advance.

My experience was that it was much worse than poison oak. It didn't want to go away. I can't even IMAGINE what people who walked in to it to collect the flowers dealt with. It's nasty.

What I've read is that it will typically last about 10 years and once the saplings around it have stabilized it will go dormant until the next fire. Of course, given the incredible lack of rain and snow the ANF has had the past few years it's not like a lot of trees are coming back in the Station Fire burn area. The Forest Service planted about a million pine and fir seeds and have seen about a 20% success rate when they were anticipating 75%.

For now, the Brutal Poodle is still doing her thing. And she's a bi-atch.

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Wwoodian

My husband and I were hiking the PCT back in August 2012. We started at Acorn trail above Wrightwood and hiked down coming out at the gravel road 3n29. We weren't familiar with Poodle Dog Bush at that time. We did enjoy the beauty of it, and definitely hiked through it and touched it. Ten days later I had the worst rash and itching I'd ever had. Having grown up in Oregon I was very familiar with both poison oak and stinging nettles. This was a severe combination of both. Since it had such a long onset, I didn't even think of our hike. I went to the Doctor and she biopsied it. She said it was plant based. I then thought of our hike and researched the trail. It took a full month for symptoms to reside. The reason I'm writing is because I only found one other article that mentioned it could take up to 10 days for symptoms. Just wanted to give heads up for that.

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