Poison Sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix, is a common North American plant that causes skin irritation to people. Like its better-known cousin poison ivy, the green leaves of poison sumac sure to put a damper on an otherwise pleasant camping trip or another outdoor excursion. Poison sumac also goes by the name thunderwood in the southeastern US.
Poison sumac is toxic thanks to the compound called urushiol, which is found in all parts of the plant. Urushil irritates the skin and mucous membranes of people. It’s particularly dangerous to burn poison sumac, because urushiol can aerosolize and cause severe damage to your lungs.
Thanks to slight differences in the chemical composition of urushiol, poison sumac is more toxic than poison ivy or poison oak. Exposure leads to redness, contact dermatitis, itching, blisters, swelling, and a burning sensation.
Learn more about identification, removal, and treatment of poison sumac below.
How to Identify Poison Sumac
Poison sumac is a small tree that grows to about 30 feet tall (that’s about three times as tall as your average Christmas tree). It has pinnate leaves, like a fern’s leaf or a feather. Each pinnate leaf has 9 to 13 leaflets on it, which are stationed opposite each other.
The green leaves are shaped like pointy, tapered ovals and may have peachlike fuzz on the underside. The stems of the leaf are reddish, but the bark of the rest of the plant is greyish.
Poison sumac has berry-like fruits that grow in loose clusters. They are white and each is 4-5 millimeters across.
Poison sumac has many lookalikes that are also in the sumac family. Let’s break down the lookalikes and how to tell which sumac you’re looking at:
- Staghorn sumac has similar leaf arrangement to poison sumac but it has fuzzy fruit and stems. The fruits are generally red.
- Smooth sumac has smooth stems, like poison sumac. However, its berries grow in dense clustered spikes rather than the looser arrangement found in poison sumac.
- Shining sumac is easily identified by its grooved stems between the leaflets. This stem configuration is quite distinctive once you notice it – it looks like it has been given grooves. Poison sumac has smooth, round stems.
- Tree of Heaven (not a sumac at all) has leaves with notches around the base, while poison sumac has smooth leaves. Tree of Heaven also does not produce berry clusters like the sumacs.
If you’re confused, it’s generally easy to identify poison sumac by its habitat as well.
Where Does Poison Sumac Grow?
Poison sumac is mostly found in wet, swampy areas with clay-like soil. That’s a good thing, because that means most of us won’t run into it along our day-to-day adventures (unlike pernicious poison ivy, which grows just about anywhere).
Poison sumac is mostly found along the coasts of North America, with big patches just south of Tennessee and in the states surrounding Massachusetts. It is occasionally found in the farthest southeast portions of Canada.
How Can I Get Rid of Poison Sumac?
If poison sumac is growing on your property and you want to remove it, you’re in for a chore. Since it is more dangerous than other poisonous plants like poison ivy or poison oak (and it’s a decent-sized tree), it’s generally best to hire a professional.
Any attempts at removing poison sumac are risky because you are likely to expose yourself to the urushiol. As stated above, burning it is a bad idea. It’s possible that breathing the smoke from burned poison sumac is fatal, though we couldn’t find any reports of actual deaths.
If you do decide to remove poison sumac on your own (which, again, we don’t recommend), it’s a lengthy process:
- Make sure you’ve identified the target. Then plan your removal for a dry, windless day.
- Gear up. You’ll want eye protection, a mask, and long clothing or rubber gloves and boots over every inch of skin.
- Cut the plant at ground level using shears or a saw.
- Treat the remaining base using a chemical herbicide such as Roundup. We don’t always love using these big-boy chemicals, but this plant is no joke. This is not the time to play nice with nature!
- If your infestation is small, you might want to dig up the roots. However, this can be tricky with an adult plant.
- Dispose of the plant properly. You should not burn poison sumac or put it in the compost. Instead, put it in black plastic trash bags and then check with your municipality to see if they allow it in the dump.
- Disinfect your clothing and tools. Rinse tools with rubbing alcohol, then oil the joints after they’ve dried. Wash your gloves before removing your clothing, then use the gloves to take off all of your clothing. Wash all of this immediately, then wash your gloves again. Take a shower afterward.
You’ll likely need to repeat this process several times to eradicate the plants. It’s generally easier to leave poison sumac alone if it’s in a remote part of your property — removal is quite difficult!
How Do I Treat Poison Sumac Rashes?
If you think you might have come into contact with poison sumac, rinse the area with lots of cool water and dish soap or rubbing alcohol as soon as possible. This might help remove some of the urushiol before it reacts with your skin and helps prevent its spread.
Once you’re having a reaction from contact with the plants there’s not much you can do to cure it. However, you can treat the symptoms. The rash generally takes about a month to disappear.
Over-the-counter remedies for poison sumac include calamine lotion, hydrocortisone creams, antihistamines like Benadryl, and topical anesthetics.
If your eyes are swelling shut, your poison sumac reaction covers more than 30% of your body, you have a fever, or the reaction is on your face or genitals, get help from a doctor. Call 911 or go to an emergency room if you’re having trouble breathing.
Scratching the affected area can lead to infection, especially if your scratching pops your blisters. This can lead to nasty scarring and prolong your suffering.
How did you react to your poison sumac experience? Share your ID tips and stories below.