Poison Oak Removal: Learn How To Get Rid Of Poison Oak Plants

Poison oak growing near your home can be disturbing. Unfortunately, getting rid of poison oak is not easy, but it's possible to get it under control. Here's how.

Closeup of poison oak plant
(Image credit: Darren415 / Getty Images)

Poison oak leaves look rather like the leaves from the spreading oak, but the effects are very different. The term “poison” in the common name of the shrub Toxicodendron diversilobum says it all. Your skin will itch, sting and burn if you come into contact with the foliage of poison oak.

Unfortunately, getting rid of poison oak is not an easy matter. The plant is an American native that's loved by birds. They eat the berries then spread the seeds far and wide. Complete eradication is impossible, so you’ll have to consider your poison oak control options.

What Does Poison Oak Look Like?

In order to start poison oak removal, you have to be able to identify the plant. Given the pain it causes humans, you might imagine that it is lethal-looking, but it’s not. It is green and lush, growing a either a shrub or a vine. Poison oak leaves are solid, with a little of the scalloped oak shape. They hang from the stems in groups of three.

If you are wondering about poison oak vs. poison ivy, the latter’s leaves also hang in groups of three and cause the same stinging itch on contact. However, poison ivy’s leaf edges are smooth and slightly pointed, not scalloped. Both plants are deciduous and their looks change with the seasons. Both turn yellow or other fall colors in autumn, lose their leaves in winter and develop small flowers in spring.

How to Get Rid of Poison Oak

If you want to learn how to get rid of poison oak, first realize that total poison oak removal is not possible. Gardeners with a large poison oak “crop” cannot count on simply getting rid of poison oak plants.

First, it is difficult to remove the standing poison oak, given your skin’s reaction to it. Secondly, even as you chop the plants down with a hoe or pull them up by hand, birds are sowing more seeds for next year. Instead, consider poison oak control options.

You can mechanically remove enough poison oak to be able to walk in and out of your house safely. Use a hoe or a mower for best results. If you are using mechanical means, or pulling up the plants by hand, wear thick protective clothing, footwear and gloves to protect your skin.

Another option is to use horticultural vinegar mixed with salt and a bit of dish soap. This requires multiple applications, but is a safer alternative to herbicides.

Never burn poison oak since the fumes can be lethal. Other poison oak control options include inviting goats into your backyard. Goats love to snack on poison oak leaves, but you’ll need a lot of goats for a big crop.

Talk with your local university extension agent about the best and safest ways to eradicate poison oak without harsh chemicals. Because of how it is dispersed, it can't be eradicated altogether, but you can get it under control if it's growing near your home.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.

With contributions from