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Beware of poisonous poodle-dog bush, officials warn

The lavender-flowered plant thrives in areas scorched by wildfire, such as parts of the Angeles National Forest. Skin contact can cause rashes, blisters, swelling and general irritation.

July 24, 2011|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
  • Those who have tangled with the purple-flowered plant called poodle-dog bush say its like handling poison oak.
Those who have tangled with the purple-flowered plant called poodle-dog… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Unless you want to spend a few weeks scratching like a dog, don't even think of petting this pretty little poodle.

Campers, hikers, emergency crews and park rangers are learning the hard way about a little-known poisonous plant that has painted the hillsides of the Angeles National Forest a lovely lavender this summer: the poodle-dog bush.

A species of plant that thrives in areas scorched by wildfire, the lavender-flowered Turricula parryi packs a bite. Skin contact can cause rashes, blisters, swelling and general irritation.

Now that areas swept by the 2009 Station Fire have been reopened to the public, officials are rushing to get the word out: Beware of the poodle-dog.

Not everyone has gotten the message.

Melody Friend, a volunteer at the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center, said she's run into a few unwitting victims. One was a young man who had just returned from a trek along the Angeles Crest Highway and remarked on all the beautiful purple flowers he saw. Oh, boy. Friend asked, "You didn't go anywhere near them, did you?"

The hiker smiled and told her he was "immersed" in them.

The plant appears only periodically and is frequently mistaken for lupine, which also has purple flowers. Fields of poodle-dog wend between the blackened skeletons of burnt trees and throughout much of the 250 square miles that were razed by the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history.

On Saturday, Sgt. Rod Kubly, a medic for the L.A. County Sheriff Department's Special Enforcement Bureau, sat in his vehicle overlooking Devil's Canyon. Kubly said the poodle-dog bush complicates mountain search and rescue efforts, especially those coming from a helicopter.

"I can't lower any of my medics into that stuff or they'll be in a world of hurt," the 30-year veteran said. "You have to identify it by air."

Last month, sheriff's deputies went to Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road where the body of a homicide victim was found.

"The deputies took police tape and they saw these really pretty purple flowers to wrap the police tape around, and I guess they got exposed pretty good," Kubly said. "They were out for a couple of weeks. They didn't know what the poodle bush was."

He said the plant seems to thrive at about 5,000 feet of elevation, and almost exclusively where the Station Fire burned.

"Some areas, it's really thick, and then the non-burn areas you won't see anything," Kubly said. "It's beautiful."

Terry Young, a biologist who has studied animals and plants in the San Gabriel Mountains, said many of California's native plants are toxic. And many germinate only after an event that would be considered destructive to humans, animals and other plants — such as a flash flood or a wildfire.

"There's a lot of plants in Southern California that do their magnificent blooming after these disastrous moments in time for us," she said.

Those who tangle with poodle-dog say the experience is similar to handling poison oak, but you probably won't find any warnings about it in a Boy Scout field manual. They also say it's not an experience you're likely to forget.

Doris Finch, 75, of Altadena said she still remembers the day, maybe 15 years ago, when her USC professor husband walked straight into a "pretty field" of poodle-dog bushes. It was a very hot day, she said, and he decided to take off his shirt.

"It was tall, about shoulder height for me," Finch said about the plant. "It swished around his back and around his exposed skin, and the heat and the sweat and whatever toxin is in the poodle-dog bush all combined, I guess, and he came out with just a red rash."

He went to the doctor, who prescribed a lot of cortisone cream, she said. Finch said her husband "doesn't like talking about his poodle-dog rash."

She advised people going into the Angeles National Forest area burned by the Station Fire to wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves. And no matter how inviting they may look, Finch said, don't go strolling through these flowers.

"You'll be one sorry puppy."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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