Poison Sumac Plant Identification, Description

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

What poison sumac's fall color looks like.
David Beaulieu

The poison sumac plant (Toxicodendron vernix) is not without its benefits, although other, non-toxic types of sumacs are better-suited for your yard. Wild birds eat the waxy white berries of T. vernix in winter when other food is scarce. And for all its toxicity (and the rash that results from exposing your skin to it), the plant can be breathtaking in autumn. Nonetheless, you must be careful to avoid coming into contact it, which means proper identification is critical.

Name Origin, Botany of Poison Sumac

The genus name, Toxicodendron, is composed of two Greek words and translates as "poison tree." Meanwhile, the species name, vernix, 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).

T. vernix is a deciduous shrub (bush). Because this bush can grow to be rather tall (10 feet or more) and has a prominent trunk, some people refer to it as being a tree. 

But if you hear anyone referring to it as a vine, then you know that person is way off-base and is probably thinking of something entirely different: namely, poison ivy (T. radicans). It is true that both of these noxious plants contain urushiol, the oil responsible for giving you a rash. However, poison ivy is a very different-looking plant. At maturity, the latter can be found as a large vine climbing a tree, something that is never true of poison sumac. 

Characteristics, Native Habitat, Help With Identification

First of all, Toxicodendron vernix has pinnately-compound leaves. The leaves are composed of leaflets with entire margins. The leaves' red stems are very useful for identification. The fall color ranges from yellow to orange to red.

The new bark is smooth, the old bark rougher.

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

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. 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. 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). All parts of poison sumac plants are toxic.