Poison Sumac Plant Identification, Description

Everyone's Heard of This Rash-Causer, but What Does It Look Like?

Image: poison sumac's fall color is breathtaking, but don't touch!
Poison sumac's fall color is breathtaking, but don't touch those brilliant red leaves!. David Beaulieu

Taxonomy and Botany of Poison Sumac

Plant taxonomy labels poison sumac as Toxicodendron vernix. The genus name is composed of two Greek words and translates as "poison tree." Meanwhile, the specific epithet means "varnish." That is because, according to the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Trees, "A black varnish can be made from the sap, as in a related Japanese species" (Page 553).

Toxicodendron vernix is a deciduous shrub (bush).

Because these bushes can grow to be rather tall (10 feet or more) and exhibit a prominent trunk, they are sometimes referred to as "trees," as well.

But if you hear anyone referring to them as "vines," then you know that person is way off-base and is probably thinking of something entirely different: namely, poison ivy plants. It is true that both contain urushiol and can give you a rash. However, poison ivy is a very different-looking plant; at maturity, it can be encountered as a large vine that climbs trees -- something that is never true of poison sumac. That fact should become clear after you read the information below, where you will receive help with identification, so that you can avoid coming into contact with this toxic plant.

Characteristics, Native Habitat, Help With Identification

A poison sumac photo gallery specifically designed as an aid to identification (see link below at end of article) is furnished on the present website.

After reading the description of what poison sumac looks like below, be sure to visit the gallery to solidify your identification knowledge. 

First of all, Toxicodendron vernix has pinnately-compound leaves. And those leaves are composed of leaflets with entire margins. The leaves' red stems (stalks) are very useful for identification.

The fall color of the leaves can be seen in the picture on this page.

The new bark is smooth, the old bark rougher. These bushes are dioecious.

Poison sumac plants are indigenous to eastern North America, where they are typically found growing in wetlands.

How to Get Rid of Poison Sumac

The question of how to get rid of poison sumac must be addressed on two separate levels: removal of the plants and treatment for the rash.

Ortho's Brush-B-Gone is recommended for the removal of these woody plants. It is an herbicidal spray that is available at a variety of home improvement stores. Wear protective gear when spraying to protect yourself both from the poison sumac plants and from the spray. It is important to note that burning as a method of getting rid of poison sumac is a bad idea, since inhaling the smoke would mean introducing urushiol into your lungs.

On the medical side, treating the blisters and other rash-related symptoms caused by these poisonous plants is similar to treating poison ivy.

Poison Sumac Rash: Cause, Severity

According to Marilyn J. Dwelley, the rash you can receive from this plant is worse than the rash for which poison ivy is infamous (Trees and Shrubs of New England, Page 164).

In the case of both plants, it is an oil named "urushiol" that is the cause of the rash. All parts of poison sumac plants are toxic.

More on Poison Sumac

The plant is not without its benefits, at least for wildlife. Wild birds eat the waxy white berries (technically, "drupes") in winter, when other food is scarce.

For all its toxicity (and the resulting skin problems caused by these plants), poison sumac can be a breathtaking bush in autumn. Like other sumacs, its fall color is second to none.

As mentioned above, if you wish to peruse more photos to help you with identification (including photos of the bush's outstanding fall color), please see the poison sumac pictures in this photo gallery.