Red October: A landscape of beauty-harboring itchy secrets

Wilder Side of Oakland County

Autumn Leaves at Independence Oaks County Park.

A leisurely drive down a rural roadway, or  a slow-paced walk in the woods, is the perfect portal to the colors of the season. Kaleidoscopes of colors are unfolding and when sunlight is just right, or leaves cascade down on to lake shore waters, the display is dazzling. As little children we learned Jack Frost was busy all night with his artist’s palate of gold, orange, and yellow hues and endless supplies of red. He would paint every tree in the landscape and be done with his work before the pumpkins were ripe. Who are we to say that this story is not true? Even if science states that the colors were there all along, masked by the green chlorophyll that quickly fades with decreased daylight as the great chill of winter slowly approaches.

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Red Maples (acer rubrum) are racing to peak color along sun-soaked lake shores. These common county trees thrive in moist woodlands. With our glacially shaped landscape being a mosaic of lakes and hills, the red maple is a standout of beauty when it comes to shades of red. Staghorn Sumac (rhus typhina) thrives on dry hillsides and often dominates highway berms.   Many oak trees are entwined with Virginia Creeper (parthenocissus quinquefolia), a common high-climbing vine that quickly changes from deep green to dark red. Sassafras  (sassafras albidum) takes on spectacular shades of red that might best be described as fiery red with a hint of shiny orange.

Among the many red shades of October are two species that hold a secret. Contact quickly leads to a persistent itchy rash that takes the pleasure out of the season. Poison Ivy  (toxicodendron radicans) is perhaps the most common plant that leads to the misery of contact dermatitis and the weeks of woe that follow. In October it can be especially problematic. Their leaves are already transforming to reddish-orange hues and maintain their full potency. The chemical component, urushiol, stays potent in all the leaves, stems and even the roots no matter what the season. Poison ivy may appear close the ground, in bush-like form or even climbing up the trunk of a tree with colorful reddish leaves hanging at face-slapping height.

Perhaps the most beautiful and dramatic color change of all Oakland County flora of “October Red” is held by none other than Poison Sumac (toxicodendron vernix), a tall woody shrub that  loves to get its feet wet. Contact is not common, since poison sumac grows mostly in marshy areas, but it is also found trail side in moist areas and along some lake shores. October has arrived; the month for invigorating and exciting nature-embracing escapes along trails and byways. Just keep an eye out for the two plants whose red leaves serve as red-flag warnings along the wilder side of Oakland County.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.

Visit Oakland County Parks for information on all 13 Oakland County Parks including trails, camping and special autumn offerings for the family. 

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