How to Identify Poison Sumac

poison sumac

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

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Poison sumac is a shrub or small tree that can grow as tall as 25 feet. It sports eye-catching red stems, along with medium-sized green leaves, which turn to a red-orange in the fall. Best planted in spring after the last frost, sumac grows at a moderate rate. Plus, the plant is native to North America, so it won’t upset the natural balance of flora. However, the toxicity of poison sumac makes it unadvisable for use in landscape applications. The goal is typically to eradicate it, not foster it. All parts of poison sumac are toxic.

closeup of poison sumac
​The Spruce / Autumn Wood 
closeup of poison sumac berries
​The Spruce / Autumn Wood
Botanical Name Toxicodendron vernix
Common Name Poison sumac, thunderwood, swamp sumac
Plant Type Deciduous shrub or tree
Mature Size 5–25 ft. tall, 5–20 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Sandy, loamy, moist
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Yellowish-green
Hardiness Zones 3–8 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to people

Poison sumac contains the same toxin, urushiol, that’s found in poison ivy and poison oak. While poison sumac affects humans, animals don’t seem to be bothered by it. Birds and other wildlife even eat the berries from poison sumac plants. However, pets still can carry the toxic resin on their coats if they come in contact with the plant, which transfer the oil to your skin when you come into contact with the pet.

All parts of poison sumac contain urushiol, and it can even remain active in dead plants.

If you need to work with poison sumac in your garden, you should always wear protective clothing, including long sleeves and pants, rubber gloves, and boots. Thoroughly hose down your boots and gloves after you’re done in the garden, and immediately wash your clothes. It's ideal to take a shower as well, just in case there's some resin on your body.

Sumac Varieties

There are multiple species of sumac that aren’t poisonous and make for great landscape plants. They include:

  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): A shrub or small tree that grows from 15 to 25 feet tall and features reddish hairs covering its stems
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica): A dense, low-growing shrub at only around 2 to 6 feet tall that gives off a sweet citrus scent when its leaves and stems are crushed
  • Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens): A medium-sized shrub at up to 10 feet tall with glossy evergreen foliage

How to Remove Poison Sumac

Poison sumac is somewhat difficult to remove, primarily because of its toxic nature. While wearing protective clothing and eyewear, start by trimming the plant down to the ground with pruning shears. Make sure to immediately bag all the clippings—never burn them. Then, spray the area with a hose to loosen the soil. Dig around the plant’s root ball, pry it up, and put it in a yard waste bag as well. Search the soil for any remaining roots, as these have the potential to sprout new plants. You can cover the site with cardboard or a tarp for at least a full growing season to smother any new plants that try to grow.

After removal, be cautious when removing protective clothing and immediately wash all garments and accessories. As a last resort, you can use herbicide to get rid of poison sumac.

Article Sources
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  1. Strickland, Bronson. Identifying Poison Ivy. Mississippi State University Extension.

  2. Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron Vernix). North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

  3. Loewenstein, Nancy, et al. Touch-Me-Nots: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. Alabama University Cooperative Extension.

  4. Krantz, Anne. Beware of Poison Sumac (Rhus Vernix). University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

  5. Rhus Typhina. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

  6. Rhus Aromatica. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

  7. Evergreen Sumac, Tobacco Sumac, Capulin, Lambrisco. Texas A&M University.