Poison Sumac Pictures for Identification

Help Identifying Toxicodendron Vernix in All Seasons

Poison sumac identification illustration
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018
  • 01 of 14

    Identify Poison Sumac, Avoid the Rash

    Poison sumac bush growing in a swampy forest area.
    David Beaulieu

    Let these poison sumac pictures help you in identifying Toxicodendron vernix, which is the poisonous plant's new Latin name, replacing the older name, Rhus vernix. One key to identification is studying the shrub's individual plant parts:

    • Leaf (color and shape)
    • Berries
    • Bark
    • Stem (color)

    You increase your odds of proper identification if you know what all of these plant parts look like, rather than relying on knowing the appearance of just one.

    A second key to successful identification is learning what the plant looks like from season to season. If you are familiar with the plant's appearance at only one particular time of the year, you may not recognize it when you encounter it during another season. In addition to the practical benefit of knowing what poison sumac looks like in fall, it is also simply enjoyable to view its fall foliage. Its autumn display is every bit as good as the more familiar one we appreciate from the great fall color trees.

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  • 02 of 14

    "Entire" Leaflets

    Close-up of leaflet of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    Poison sumac is a shrub (some consider it a small tree) that grows in swampy areas, often next to Cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea), marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), cattails (Typha), and winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). All parts of poison sumac are poisonous.

    The edge (or "margin") of poison sumac's leaflet is considered "entire" in plant-identification terminology, and it displays a midrib of a lighter color. A leaf margin that is entire is smooth: It lacks the "teeth" that the leaf edge of a Roger's flower (Rodgersia) has, for example. 

    Poison sumac is indigenous to eastern North America.

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  • 03 of 14

    Pinnately Compound Leaves

    Pinnately-compound leaves of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    "Pinnately compound" is part of botanical lingo for identifying plants by their leaf shapes. "Pinnate" means resembling a feather. "Compound" means that, instead of one, unified structure, a plant's leaf is really composed of multiple leaflets joined by stems.

    A leaf that does have one, unified structure is called a "simple" leaf. Oak trees (Quercus), for example, have simple leaves. Another plant with pinnately compound leaves is shagbark hickory (Carya ovata).

    Poison sumac has leaves made up of from 5 to 13 such leaflets. While the exact number varies, it is always an odd number. That's because, while most of the leaflets form matching pairs (one across from the other), there's always one lone leaflet at the tip of the compound leaf, which gives it the shape of a feather.

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  • 04 of 14

    The Stems

    Red stem of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    The stems of poison sumac leaves further help us to identify the plant. The bright red color of the stems is one of the first things you'd want to look for in the spring to distinguish the shrub from nonpoisonous varieties of sumac. 

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  • 05 of 14

    The Spring and Summer Berry

    Green berries of poison sumac shrub.
    David Beaulieu

    The berries of poison sumac start out green in spring and remain that color for much of the summer. They grow in clusters. The poison sumac berry cluster is quite distinct from the berry cluster of nonpoisonous sumacs (Rhus typhina, for example), in terms of color, shape, and texture.

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  • 06 of 14

    The Odd Shape of the Berries

    The oddly-shaped berries of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    A distinguishing feature of the berries of poison sumac is the fact that they aren't perfectly round. Although toxic to the touch for humans, poison sumac berries are not toxic to birds. Many birds, including quail, treat the berries as an emergency food source in winter.

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  • 07 of 14

    The Fall Berry

    White berries of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    The foliage of poison sumac shrub changes its color in fall, and so does the berry. Like poison ivy, the color of poison sumac's mature berry is whitish. The fact that the berry color of these two noxious weeds is so unusual makes it another distinguishing feature.

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  • 08 of 14

    A Harmless Relative

    Fluffy, red cone of sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    Most sumac shrubs are quite harmless (nonpoisonous) and potentially desirable landscaping elements, which is another reason why you should identify poison sumac properly: There is no reason to give up their great fall color simply because they have "sumac" in their common names. But the reputation of these delightful sumac shrubs has been smeared through their association with their nefarious cousin, poison sumac. 

    One of the easiest ways to distinguish between the two is via the berries or seeds. The berries of poison sumac could never be confused with any plant part on a nonpoisonous sumac bush. The latter forms its seeds in a red, fuzzy seed-tuft that offers some ornamental value. This seed-tuft looks feathery from a distance and is soft to the touch. The seeds are tightly packed within the seed-tuft. Wild birds eat the seeds in winter.

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  • 09 of 14

    Orange Fall Foliage

    Fall foliage of poison sumac in orange.
    David Beaulieu

    The fall foliage of poison sumac is just as magnificent as that of its nonpoisonous cousins, Rhus typhina, Rhus glabra, etc. What makes its fall foliage especially interesting is that the leaves don't all turn the same color at the same time. This makes for some beautiful combinations. When all of the leaves finally do become the same color, that color can be orange, yellow, or red. 

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  • 10 of 14

    Yellow Fall Foliage

    Fall foliage of poison sumac in yellow.
    David Beaulieu

    Here is an example of a branch whose fall foliage is entirely yellow. The color of such a poison sumac plant can revival that of the birch trees.

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  • 11 of 14

    Red Fall Foliage

    Poison sumac's fall foliage in red.
    David Beaulieu

    The most striking single color poison sumac's fall foliage can become is red. The red color is so bright and so crisp that it need not take a back seat to that of red maple trees (albeit on a smaller scale).

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  • 12 of 14

    Fall Foliage in a Mix of Colors

    Fall foliage of poison sumac in mixed colors.
    David Beaulieu

    But lovers of variety will be most thrilled when the autumn leaves of poison sumac offer a number of colors all at once. Examples of possible color combinations include:

    • Yellow and pink
    • Red and pink
    • Red, pink, and yellow

    In all three cases, a tinge of green may remain to add yet another color.

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  • 13 of 14

    The New Bark

    Close-up of new bark of poison sumac.
    David Beaulieu

    Poison sumac is a multi-branched shrub that grows to be 6 to 20 feet high. The new bark on the branches is relatively smooth. If you learn how to identify the plant by its bark, then you will be able to avoid coming into contact with poison sumac in winter (after it has lost its leaves). You can get a rash from allowing your skin to brush up against poison sumac even in winter.

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  • 14 of 14

    The Old Bark

    Close-up of old bark of poison sumac plant.
    David Beaulieu

    One of poison sumac's nicknames is "poison dogwood." If the rash it causes can be considered its "bite," then, in the case of this dog, it is not true that its bark is worse than its bite. But the plant is not related to true dogwood (Cornus genus).

    Here is what the old bark of poison dogwood looks like. It is much rougher in texture than the newer bark.