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How to Identify Poison Sumac

Poison sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix, is a plant native to the eastern United States and Canada. Most people develop a painful allergic reaction upon contact with any part of the plant, resulting in a red, itchy rash or blisters. Learn how to identify poison sumac by its appearance and habitat, so you can avoid this painful fate.

Method One of Four:
Identifying Poison Sumac
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  1. 1
    Look for a sparse shrub or tree. Poison sumac typically grows into a shrub or tree about 5–20 ft (1.5–6 m) in height, but may occasionally grow even taller. The branches may or may not be covered with leaves along their length, but either way the growth pattern of poison sumac tends to produce a fairly open result, rather than a thick bush of foliage.[1]
    • Large poison sumac trees, like other species of sumac, often grow long, thin branches that sag or tilt downward.[2]
  2. 2
    Watch for small plants with upward pointing leaves. Before poison sumac grows into a full sized shrub or tree, it may be relatively upright, with small branches with red stems growing along the entire height of the trunk. In this case, its leaves and branches usually have a noticeable upward tilt, especially near the top of the tree.[3]
  3. 3
    Look for double rows of leaves on each stem. Poison sumac has a pinnate leaf structure, meaning that each stem has two parallel rows of leaves growing along its length. Each stem usually has between six and twelve leaves, plus an additional single leaf at the end.[4] Young stems are typically red or red-brown, but this color may fade to brown or grey as the plant ages.
    • Technically, the leaves of a pinnate leaf are called leaflets, but these look like an ordinary leaf, roughly 2–4 inches (5–10 cm) long.
  4. 4
    Recognize the leaf shape of poison sumac. The leaves of this plant have an oval or oblong shape, tapering to a wedge or point on each end. The sides of the leaf may appear wavy or smooth, but will not have the jagged "tooth" appearance of some non-poisonous sumac trees.[5]
  5. 5
    Learn the other attributes of the leaf. Poison sumac is deciduous, so the leaves change color throughout the year. Newly grown spring leaves may be bright orange, becoming light green during spring and summer, changing to red during autumn, then falling off the plant entirely.[6] The underside of poison sumac leaves, at any time of year, may be either smooth or hairy, making it a poor way to identify the plant.
    • Warning: The fallen leaves may still be poisonous to the touch. Never burn leaves or wood collected near a poison sumac tree, as inhaling poison sumac smoke can be dangerous or even fatal.[7]
  6. 6
    Identify poison sumac flowers. During the spring and summer, poison sumac may have pale yellow or green flowers.[8] These small flowers grow in clusters along their own, green stems, separate from the red leafy stems.[9]
  7. 7
    Identify the berries. During summer or fall, the plant may have replaced its flowers with small green or yellow berries. Over the course of the fall and winter, these will mature into clusters of white and grey berries, hanging down on stems up to 12 inches (30 cm) long.[10]
    • If the berries are red, and the rest of the plant fits the description above, the plant is most likely a non-poisonous member of the sumac family.[11]
    • The berries may be eaten by animals or fall off naturally during winter. Do not assume they will always be present.
  8. 8
    Check for white berries or empty berry stems in winter. Poison sumac is still poisonous without its leaves, but it can be much harder to identify. If you're lucky, it will still have hanging clusters of white or pale yellow berries which you can use as a warning sign. After the first few weeks of winter, however, you are more likely to see thin, empty stems hanging from the branches, similar in appearance to light brown grape stems.
  9. 9
    Avoid grey bark found in poison sumac habitat. Identifying the poisonous bark of poison sumac can be difficult once all the foliage and berries have fallen off. Use the habitat section below to know which areas sumac may grow in, and steer clear of any trees with rough, grey bark.
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Method Two of Four:
Recognizing Poison Sumac Habitat
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  1. 1
    Know the regions where poison sumac can grow. Unlike its relatives, poison ivy and poison oak, poison sumac is restricted to a fairly small area of the world. If you are outside the following areas, your chance of encountering poison sumac is almost zero:[12]
    • Ontario, Quebec, and other eastern provinces of Canada
    • Minnesota, Wisconsin, and all U.S. states east of them, including all of New England
    • Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and all U.S. states east of them, including all of the South
    • Texas, and all states east of it along the southern U.S. border, including Florida
  2. 2
    Look for poison sumac in moist or flooded soils. Poison sumac thrives in unusually wet soil, or even in standing water. If the surrounding area is dry throughout the year, there is little chance that poison sumac is present.
    • During dry weather, keep an eye out for empty riverbeds or dried mud that indicate the area may usually be wet.
  3. 3
    Don't worry about poison sumac at high elevations. Poison sumac has trouble growing at 4,000 ft (1,200 m) above sea level or above.[13] If you are above 5,000 ft (1,500 m), there is almost no chance of exposure to poison sumac.
    • Its relatives, poison ivy and poison oak, are also constrained to low elevations, reducing the need for caution concerning poisonous plant exposure at high altitudes.
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Method Three of Four:
Treating Poison Sumac Exposure
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  1. 1
    Consider using a towel soaked in rubbing alcohol immediately after exposure. The rash or blisters may not appear until as late as 48 hours after exposure, so do not wait to do this. If you identify poison sumac and know you have been exposed, pour rubbing alcohol over the affected skin as soon as possible. Because the toxin, urushiol, will not fully dissolve in alcohol, using a paper towel or other solid material to rub the alcohol-soaked skin may be necessary to remove a significant amount of the toxin.[14]
    • Warning: the alcohol may temporarily make you more susceptible to further exposure, by removing the protective oils on your skin. Avoid areas where poisonous plants grow for the next 24 hours after applying alcohol, if possible.
    • A better alternative is using a good surfactant to bind the oils before they penetrate the dermis of the skin, Fels Naptha (old fashioned yellow soap available at a hardware store) or good ole Spic n Span, wash the affected areas well, scrub and rinse well. Repeat. Do not touch any affected clothing as the oil will remain on the surface and readily transfer to skin.
    • Wear disposable gloves during this process if your hands have not been exposed.
  2. 2
    Wash in cold water. Whether or not you applied alcohol, scrub the exposed area with lots of cold water. Do not use warm water because it will open your pores and make the exposure worse. You may also use soap, detergent, or specialized products such as Tecnu, but wash these off frequently so they do not dry on your skin along with any toxin they have picked up.[15]
  3. 3
    Treat the rash with antihistamines or lotions. If you develop blisters or a rash, you may take oral antihistamines to reduce the itching. You may also apply calamine, hydrocortisone lotions, or oatmeal baths for the same purpose.
    • If you develop large, oozing blisters, you may wish to visit a doctor for prescription-strength treatment.
    • Ooze from blisters does not contain the toxin, so it cannot spread the rash.
  4. 4
    Seek medical attention in severe cases. If you suspect you inhaled poison sumac smoke, seek medical attention immediately even if symptoms have not developed. Other serious situations that may require a doctor's attention include a rash on your face or genitals, or a rash anywhere that fails to reduce in size after a week, as well as eyes that are swollen shut, or trouble breathing.[16]
  5. 5
    Wash exposed tools and clothing. If you leave the sumac oil on tools or clothing, they can spread the rash for months or years after the initial exposure. Put on disposable gloves and wash tools with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, or diluted bleach. Store clothes in disposable bags during transport, then wash them in soap and hot water.
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Method Four of Four:
Removing Poison Sumac
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  1. 1
    Wait until the plant is flowering. The best time of the year to remove poison sumac is between May and July, or when the plant is flowering.[17] Wait until then to begin the process of removing the poison sumac.
  2. 2
    Put on protective clothing. Before you get started, make sure to cover all of your skin. Wear a long sleeve shirt, pants that cover your legs completely, socks and shoes that cover your feet, and gloves. This will help to reduce your chances of exposure.
    • Do not wear rubber or latex gloves because they will not protect you from the urushiol in the poison sumac.[18]
  3. 3
    Use an herbicide that is absorbed through the leaves. An herbicide like Roundup is a good choice. Cut the tree or bush down to about one foot above ground level, then apply the plant spray immediately. Make sure to spray all areas of the plant including the roots, vines, and leaves. You may have to do several treatments. Continue to spray the plants until no new growth appears.
    • Keep in mind that spraying the plants with herbicides may kill other plants in the area.[19]
  4. 4
    Throw away all of the dead plant materials. Once the sumac tree or bush is dead, collect all of the plant remains including any leaves that have fallen off the plant. Place the dead plant materials in trash bags and put the bags out with the trash.
    • Do not burn any of the plant materials because the smoke can irritate your lungs and cause a rash if it comes into contact with your skin.[20]
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Community Q&A

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  • How long does it take for the poison sumac to go away?
    Answered by Maggie Moran
    • It can take several days to several weeks for the poison sumac to disappear. It depends on the size of the growth and how aggressive you are about spraying it with herbicide.
    Thanks! 4 2
  • Is there something that I can put on poison sumac to kill it without killing other plants?
    Answered by Maggie Moran
    • The most effective way to kill or control sumac is to use a non-discriminatory agent like Roundup, which will kill other plants. Use it carefully to avoid killing the surrounding plants.
    Thanks! 3 1
  • How should I approach getting rid of a Sumac tree that has fallen in my yard?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Try to get someone who isn't allergic to it to cut it into pieces that they can carry and load it up in a truck and take away from your residence.
    Thanks! 10 2
  • What should I do if I get cut by a poison sumac branch?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • You should contact your doctor immediately, as the wood could be poisonous.
    Thanks! 24 7
  • What does the rash look like? How long does it last?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • The rash is red, raised bumps, and it itches and hurts to the touch. With proper treatment, it should be gone in a little over a week.
    Thanks! 17 5
  • I think I accidentally cut some poison sumac using a saw and inhaled the sawdust. Should I be concerned?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Yes, you should be concerned, as the sawdust could be poisonous. It would be a good idea to call poison control or visit your doctor.
    Thanks! 26 12
  • Should I go to the doctor if the poison gets into my eye?
    Answered by Jake S
    • Go as soon as possible. The eye does not have a protective layer like other skin, and it can spread much faster with much worse impact to you.
    Thanks! 9 3
  • Does poison sumac always have a red stem in spring or summer?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • No, poison sumac can have red or brown stems. However, black elderberry is a plant that looks similar to the poison sumac. Black elderberry has red stems, but its leaves have fine sawtooth edges and the berry clusters are different from those of poison sumac.
    Thanks! 15 7
  • How do I get rid of poison sumac growing in with another shrub?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Find someone who is immune to poison sumac. Have them dig it out completely. The roots will come out separately without harming the other plant. Be careful because the roots of sumac are deep. The other plant will be much happier without competing for water and nutrients.
    Thanks! 16 11
  • Does poison sumac grow as a vine around other plants?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Yes, it can, but it does not have to. It can stand by itself or grow as a shrub.
    Thanks! 0 0
Show more answers
  • Are the roots of sumac poisonous?
  • Does sumac rash leave scars?
  • Is all sumac poisonous?
  • I have a plant growing by my kitchen door. The plants stems are dark red and there are clusters of dark purple elongated berries .the leaves are green and are tapered. Could it be Sumac?
  • Are the briars on sumac trees poisonous?
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TipsEdit

  • The best way to avoid developing a rash through contact with poison sumac is to wear long sleeves, long pants, and closed-toed shoes when walking outdoors.
    0 Helpful?  0
  • The toxin urushiol is the allergy-inducing agent in poison sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak, although it is usually most concentrated in poison sumac. People can become allergic to urushiol over time, so do not assume you are safe if you fail to develop a rash once.
    0 Helpful?  0
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WarningsEdit

  • Never burn plant matter taken from an area where poison sumac grows. Inhaling the oil from poison sumac plants can cause serious respiratory harm, or even death.
    32 Helpful?  18

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Expert Review By:

MM
Horticulturist

This version of How to Identify Poison Sumac was reviewed by Maggie Moran on July 24, 2017.

29 votes - 83%
Co-authors: 21
Updated:
Views: 527,572

Reader Success Stories

  • A

    Anonymous

    Feb 13

    "The actual size it can attain."
  • A

    Anonymous

    Jul 31, 2016

    "I have always wondered what poisonous sumac looks like but nobody seemed to know, and all I've ever seen are articles on poison oak/ivy, which I'm familiar with. Very helpful! I will read it again several times. Loved the clear pictures and descriptions!"..." more
  • LD

    Linda D.

    Jun 23, 2016

    "Thank you for such a comprehensive article regarding how to identify sumac. I have been cutting a small field of this for many years and have just this month got the rash. Now gloves and long clothing will become part of my garden supplies."..." more
  • A

    Anonymous

    Aug 4, 2016

    "This was the most helpful of several articles I read (after I was covered with blisters, unfortunately!). I now know which part of the garden to steer clear of or tackle with protective gear. Thank you!"..." more
  • A

    Anonymous

    Aug 20, 2016

    "The leaf shape and smooth edge description helped. The size of the (deciduous) shrub/tree. The seasonal description of the leaves, berries and bark. The warnings about burning and breathing the smoke. "..." more
  • CH

    Chris Higgins

    Jun 16, 2016

    "This article was very informative, as I did not know about poison sumac. Now I know to watch out for the white or cream flowers. I am very allergic to poison ivy, and now know about poison sumac."..." more
  • CW

    Charles Weber

    Jul 11, 2017

    "I finally was given a complete (and actually accurate) description of poisonous sumac. Turns out I have a dozen or so of them, and another plant I thought was poisonous wasn't! Thanks very much!"..." more
    Rated this article:
  • A

    Anonymous

    Jul 2, 2016

    "Very detailed pictures. I didn't know about not burning the sumac and had planned to burn it before I read this. How do the authors recommend disposing of the plant?"..." more
  • MS

    Mary Shutt

    Aug 9, 2017

    "I knew what poison ivy looked like, and after I developed a rash on my ankles, I guessed poison sumac. This article confirmed it. Thank you!"..." more
  • JR

    Joy Rehm

    Jul 2, 2016

    "It was a start to learning about sumac. I still need real photos to help identify it, so I can get rid of as much of it as possible."..." more
  • A

    Anonymous

    Oct 25, 2016

    "I loved that the article contained scientific descriptions, yet kept the verbiage simple for anyone who wants to understand."..." more
  • EN

    Eric Notelling

    Jun 15, 2016

    "I was trying to identify a small, wild blooming tree during June. It appears not to be poison sumac, using your description."..." more
  • JS

    Johnette Schwartz

    May 11, 2016

    "I get the rash every year and it gets worse each time. This article was helpful in identifying and treating. Thank you."..." more
  • LC

    Lenya Corday

    Sep 3, 2016

    "Terrific botanical environmental and microenvironmental info throughout season. Fantastic article and info."
  • DS

    Dee Smith

    May 18, 2016

    "Excellent pictures and descriptions. Did not know to use alcohol or that it grew as a tree!"
  • A

    Anonymous

    May 24, 2017

    "The entries on leaves, flowers, and berries helped. Also the info about elevation."
  • A

    Anonymous

    Sep 23, 2016

    "The different colors and changes from season to season to identify it helped."
  • A

    Anonymous

    Jul 17, 2016

    "This is scary stuff. Please, all readers, read this article."
  • RH

    Robert Hazlehurst

    Oct 27, 2016

    "My friend's garden is at sea level, no problem. Thank you."
  • BB

    Bruce Baker

    Jul 23, 2016

    "All the tips for identifying poison sumac were helpful."
  • CK

    Cindy Kleven

    May 6, 2017

    "How to identify with pictures and descriptions helped."
  • A

    Anonymous

    Sep 20, 2016

    "Learned what it looks like and how to treat it."
  • A

    Anonymous

    May 13, 2017

    "The pictures helped me most!"
  • A

    Anonymous

    Jul 27, 2016

    "Thanks."
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