Ready to explore the differences between ornamental and poison sumac plants? Sumac (aka Sumach) is an interesting group of plants. There are many harmless varieties you can use for many useful purposes, and there are a few poisonous varieties that give all the rest a bad name.
In this article, we will discuss the differences between poison sumac and its harmless cousins. We will also share information to help you identify these plants and make good use of the hardy, colorful, useful harmless sumac. Read on to learn more.
What Is Poison Sumac?
Poison sumac was once a member of the Rhus genus of trees. This genus encompasses:
- Brazilian Pepper Trees (Schinus terebinthifolius)
- Purple Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggyrgria)
- Ornamental sumach (Multiple varieties)
- Cashew (Anacardium occidentale)
- Mango (Mangifera indica)
- Pistachio (Pistacia vera)
Recently, poisonous members of the Rhus genus (including poison sumac) have been set aside from the general category into a genus established for poisonous trees and shrubs, Toxicodendron (literally poison-tree).
This genus encompasses plants which produce a substance called urushiol. This is the rash-producing aspect of these plants. In the US, the members of this genus to watch out for include:
- Poison oak (Multiple varieties)
- Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)
- Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
Poison sumac is somewhat unique in that it typically grows in swampy areas and has very little practical use; although, the sap from a Japanese variant is used to produce black varnish.
Although many people think that poison sumac grows as a vine, this belief is incorrect. There is no poison sumac vine. Poison ivy can grow as a vine, but poison sumac always grows as a bush or tree.
The plant is categorized as a deciduous shrub, but it can grow quite tall. Mature specimens have been known to attain heights of twenty feet. Poison sumac has a thick trunk, and sturdy branches, so many people think of it as a tree.
Where Does Poison Sumac Grow and How Can You Identify It?
The first dead giveaway that a plant is poison sumac and not harmless sumac is that you find it in a swamp. Poison sumac likes to grow in water. People say it likes to “keep its feet wet.” If you are not in a marshy area (e.g., a swamp, shady hardwood forest or piney woods) and you suspect a bush or tree of being poison sumac, you are probably wrong; however, sometimes ornamental and poison sumac will grow side-by-side, so stay vigilant!
What does Poison Sumac Look Like?
If you are in a swamp, examine the tree visually (don‘t touch!) Poison sumac has:
Pinnately Compound Leaves:
These are leaves that grow in pairs on long red stems with one lone leaf at the end of the stem. The leaves are not all one size. Instead, they become smaller toward the end of the stem forming a feather shape.
When the plant doesn’t yet have flowers or berries, you can use the red stems and feather-shaped collection of odd-numbered leaves as an identifier.
Teardrop Shaped or Rounded Leaves:
The individual leaves have a pale midrib, are veined and teardrop shaped. The leaf edges are smooth (i.e., untoothed or non-serrated). The leaves are somewhat thick, and the surface is a bit shiny. The leaves range from two to four inches in length and can be one or two inches wide.
Varying Bark Texture:
New bark will be smooth and tan, but the old bark is rough and grayish. The older bark resembles that of a dogwood tree, and poison sumac is sometimes called poison dogwood.
Dazzling Fall Foliage:
Poison sumac may be dangerous, but it is also good-looking. In autumn its leaves turn yellow, orange and/or bright red. The leaves don’t all turn at once. You will usually see several different shades on the same tree. This presents an excellent photo-op, but don’t make a bouquet!
Pendulous Flowers and Berries:
Poison sumac produces small, pale green flowers that become waxy white berries (aka drupes). When they first form, the berries are green. As they mature, they become white. These drupes grow in clusters that hang down from the limbs. The berries are safe for birds to eat, and many do. Deer also eat them when they can reach them.
Aside from these specific traits, it’s important to remember that poison sumac grows in the swampy regions of the eastern and southeastern United States. You will not find it in the Midwest or the western US.
How Dangerous is Poison Sumac and What Can You Do?
Of the several poisonous plants found in the United States (poison oak, ivy, sumac, Virginia creeper and poisonwood) poison sumac produces the most severe allergic reactions in most people. Some people do not react on first exposure, but repeated exposure will eventually cause a strong reaction. [source]
Anytime you believe you may have come in contact with poison sumac or any poison plant; you should wash the exposed skin with soap or a specialty product such as Tecnu and warm water right away. Rinse thoroughly with cool water. Be sure not to use hot water as this will enable the plants’ essential oil (urushiol) to soak into your skin.
Urushiol is the substance that causes allergic reactions, and it can rub off on your skin, your clothes, your camping equipment, your pet’s fur or anything else that comes in contact with it. It’s a good idea to promptly strip down, toss your clothes in the wash and shower thoroughly every time you come home from a walk, hike or camping trip in areas where poison plants may be present.
Be careful not to come in contact with plants in the wild unless you are sure of their identity. If you do get a poison sumac rash, there are a few things you can do to support recovery and ease the itching and pain.
- After showering to wash off the urushiol, take a lukewarm oatmeal bath to help ease itching. To do this, put a cup of dry oatmeal in an old sock and tie it shut. Toss this into your empty bathtub and run your bath water. Leave the oatmeal bag in the bath as you soak. It will steep like a teabag.
- Prepare a paste of baking soda and water to smooth over very irritated patches of rash. Let the paste sit for half an hour or so and then rinse it off gently with cool water. You may find it helpful to add a dollop of pure aloe vera gel to the mix to promote healing.
- Use OTC antihistamines such as Benadryl. You can take this medication orally and/or use gels or creams containing it. (Always consult a medical professional)
- Use ointments, creams, gels, and sprays containing zinc oxide, zinc acetate or hydrocortisone.
If your rash doesn’t improve right away and/or does not resolve completely within a week, you should see your doctor. If a large area of your skin is affected, or if very sensitive areas (e.g., eyes or mucus membranes) are affected it would be wise to see your doctor.
What Is The Best Way To Get Rid Of Poison Sumac Plants, Trees and Bushes?
Unless you live in an area where the plant is prevalent, it is not likely to be a problem to you. If you do happen to have mature poison sumac growing on your property, you are best off hiring a professional to take care of it for you. If you have immature plants, you have a few more options. You can:
- Spray with an herbicide.
- Spray with vinegar.
- Hire or acquire a herd of goats to eat the plants and keep them mowed.
For more details on Getting Rid Of Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac and Poison Oak
No matter what kind of poison sumac removal (or other poison plant removal) you choose, remember not to burn the brush. The smoke can be a powerful irritant and may negatively impact you, your family and people for miles around.
How Is Ornamental or Harmless Sumac Different Than Poison Sumac?
Poison sumac is dangerous and scary, but ornamental sumac is delightful (if a bit intrusive). Native to North America, sumac is a rugged, easy-to-please, good looking, useful addition to a large yard or garden.
Harmless sumac is almost always a tree. It can grow as high as thirty feet. Its pretty white flowers attract pollinating insects, and its fluffy, red, upright berry clusters attract all manner of birds. The berries are chock full of vitamin C and can be used to make alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, spices and natural dyes. [source]
The trees have multiple trunks and pithy, hollow stems. The wood is good for many things, including whittling, making pipe stems and making a natural “tap” for collecting maple syrup from a tree. Unlike poison sumac, ornamental sumac brush can be safely burned, and the smoke can be used by beekeepers to calm the bees during hive maintenance.
Sumac! What is it? What’s it good for?
Harmless sumac is easy to grow from seed or from rhizomes. In fact, in ideal conditions, they can become invasive because they self-seed readily when the wind blows and the roots (rhizomes) travel enthusiastically.
Their rampant growth habits make this tree an excellent choice for a large, treeless property or a hillside area that has trouble with erosion. The trees form a network of shallow roots that help keep the soil in place. They tend to grow in groves to give each other the support of a complex root system.
These hardy trees grow happily (and harmlessly) across the United States and Canada. They can tolerate drought and poor soil conditions. They have almost no natural enemies, so you needn’t worry about pest control.
What Does Harmless Sumac Look Like?
There are many varieties of harmless (aka ornamental) sumac, and they can grow in a wide variety of settings except shady, swampy areas. Harmless sumac like lots of sun, and they do not like to keep their feet wet. In fact, they are drought resistant.
The different varieties differ somewhat in appearance. Just remember that they do not have smooth-edged leaves or pendulous white berries. Most varieties of harmless sumac share these qualities:
- Frond-like stems with pairs of leaves running the length. These leaves are all of one size, and there is no single leaf at the end of the stem, so the leaves are likely to be even in number. The stems are green or yellow, rosy pink or another color that blends with the plant (not bright, aggressive red).
- Elongated Leaves: Rather than being smaller at one end, harmless sumac leaves are usually the same width from one end to the other. They have a midrib and serrated edges.
- Red, Tufted, Upright Seed-Pods: The trees have small greenish/white flowers in the springtime. These turn into attractive, red or deep pink (usually cone-shaped) seed pods during the summer. Left undisturbed, the seed pods stay in place and provide visual interest and an important food source for birds all winter long.
- Fall Color: Harmless sumac puts on a gorgeous show in the fall. It rivals that of its poisonous cousin – only without the poison!
Many Varieties Of Ornamental Sumac To Choose From
Ornamental sumac is highly adaptive, and there are different types for every region of the United States and Canada. There are also imported sumac that has been brought in from other parts of the world and happily naturalized in North America. Here are some of the varieties you may encounter.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is a small tree that has loose fruit clusters and smooth bark. Its leaves are especially attractive because they are much lighter on the underside than on the top surface. The underside of the leaf can be nearly white, and this gives the foliage a shimmering appearance when the wind blows. This specimen can range in height from two feet to twenty feet. It is hardy in zones 3 through 9.
Because of its wide range, it has many names, including Common sumac, Pennsylvania sumac, Rocky mountain sumac, Western sumac and Upland sumac. Because of its dramatic coloration and attractive bark, it is called Red sumac, Scarlet sumac, White sumac and Sleek sumac. Many parts of Rhus glabra can be used to produce a wide variety of natural dyes ranging in shades from yellow to red to black. It is also a good choice for making beverages and using as a spice.
Prairie Flame is a cultivar of smooth sumac that produces very brilliant red foliage in the fall. The color contrast between the topsides and undersides of the leaves is quite striking.
Other Types Of Ornamental Sumac
- Staghorn (Rhus typhina) is a small-to-medium sized tree (15 to 25 feet high) whose branches terminate in a compact, rounded formation. The branches are rust-colored and a bit furry like a stag’s antlers. Hence the name. The clusters of fruit are also covered with soft fur. It is sometimes known as Velvet sumac or Vinegar Tree. This variety is hardy in zones 4 – 8.
- Cutleaf staghorn (Rhus typhina laciniata) is similar to regular staghorn, but its leaves are small and divided for a very delicate appearance.
- Tiger’s Eyes is a cultivar that has bright chartreuse leaves that turn an attractive shade of yellow early in the fall and then progress to an impressive scarlet. Its stems are a rosy shade of pink. This is a dwarf variety that grows three to six feet high. It is hardy in US zones 4 through 6. The plant is drought tolerant and rabbit resistant. It is a good choice for erosion control on hillsides.
- Winged sumac (Rhus copallina) has smooth twigs (not furred), and its stems feature a flat membrane that runs along the sides between the leaves. This is the “wing”. This interesting species produces small clusters of flowers and fruit in a rather sparse fashion. Although the plant can grow as high as 30 feet, it is sometimes called Dwarf sumac. Other names include Shining sumac and Flame Leaf sumac. This pretty plant is native to the eastern US and is hardy in zones 5 through 10.
- Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) also known as Lemon sumac, Sweet-scented sumac and Polecat bush. It is an exception to the “tree rule”. This is a low-growing bush (2-8 feet high) that spreads very quickly, so it is an excellent choice as a groundcover. This is especially true for areas that are prone to soil erosion. It also differs from other ornamental sumac in that its leaves are formed in groupings of three. For this reason, it is often mistaken for poison ivy. Remember to look at the berries and flowers for positive identification. It is hardy in zones 4-8.
- Skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) is very similar to Fragrant sumac and the two are often referred to interchangeably. Both are small, three-leaved versions that could be mistaken for poison ivy. The Skunkbush is fairly small but can attain a height of 12 feet. It is also hardy in zones 4-8. This smelly little bush goes by many names, including Stink Bush, Ill-Scented sumac, Quailbush, Stinking sumac and aromatic or fragrant sumac.
- Elm-leaved sumac (Rhus coriaria) is a small variety that is native to southern Europe. Its maximum height is ten feet. It is hardy in US zones 9 and 10.
- Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) is also known as Tobacco sumach. It is a native of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. This is another fairly small bush that does not exceed 12 feet high. It displays gorgeous red, fall color and is only hardy in zones 8-10.
- Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) reaches a maximum height of ten feet. It is a native to southern California and Baja and is hardy in zones 9-10. This attractive bush has shiny green leaves and pretty pink flower clusters.
- Sweet sumac (Rhus ovate) is another southern California native that can also be found in Baja and in Arizona. Other names include Chaparral sumac and Sugar Bush. It is drought tolerant and quite attractive with plump, pink berries. This bush’s height can range from 7 feet to 30 feet. It is hardy in zones 7 through 11.
- Littleleaf sumac (Rhus microphylla) looks quite a bit like a holly bush. Its leaves are small, and it is well suited to very dry regions. It is also known as Desert sumac or Scrub sumac. This vigorous grower can attain a height of 15 feet and is hardy in zones 6 through 9.
- Michaux’s sumac (Rhus michauxii) is a dwarf sumac which looks quite a bit like its poisonous cousin. For this reason, it is also known as False Poison sumac. You can tell the difference between the two because Michaux’s has larger leaves than true poison sumac. The leaves are also serrated along the edges. This little bush only reaches a height of 3 feet, and it is hardy in zones 5 through 7.
- Prairie sumac ( Rhus lanceolata) can attain a towering height of 20 feet and offers a gorgeous color display in autumn. It is a native of the Texas prairies, and it is sometimes called Texas sumac, Prairie flame-leaf sumac, Limestone sumac or Prairie shining sumac. This lovely specimen is hardy in zones 6-8.
What Can You Do With Harmless Sumac?
There are many culinary, medicinal and craft uses for ornamental sumac. Native Americans found harmless sumac useful for a wide variety of pursuits. The young shoots of the tree can be plucked, peeled and eaten as-is. Edible parts of the tree are filled with vitamins and minerals.
The berries can be used to make sumac lemonade, tasty tea and/or a tangy spice (red za‘atar) for use in middle-eastern recipes, savory sauces, poultry dishes, rice and more. An extract can be rendered from the berries and frozen for use in a wide variety of dishes all year round. Sum lemonade can be enjoyed on its own, used to make lemony popsicles, added to alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages or used in any recipe calling for lemonade.
What is Sumac? Is It Poisonous?
The bark, leaves, berries, sap, and roots of harmless sumac are often used in folk medicine to create poultices, salves, astringents, antiseptics, diuretics and various tonics to address problems as diverse as:
- Urinary tract problems
- Skin conditions
- Cold and flu
It is said that the leaves can be chewed to alleviate sore gums. The lemony tasting berries can be used to make medicinal or recreational wine. Leaves, bark, and berries can be used to create dye suitable for natural fabrics, raw wool, leather and more.
The soft wood can be used for crafts or whittling. Oil may be extracted from the seed to color natural wax for candle making.
The best time to harvest sumac berries is in the late summer/early autumn. It’s best not to harvest them immediately after a rain, because the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which gives them their tart, lemony taste is held in the small hairs that cover the berries and bark of the tree.
Rain will wash this substance off, so it’s best to wait a few days for it to build up again before harvesting. To test for ascorbic acid content, just lick a bunch of berries on the spot. If it tastes sour, it’s good to pick.
What If Ornamental Sumac Takes Over My Landscape?
These trees do like to travel. If you decide you don’t want one and cut it down (or if a sumac tree falls) it’s roots will go into overdrive and send out shoots quickly so that you will soon have a dozen trees where you once had only one or two. Through seed distribution and spreading roots, you could soon supply your entire neighborhood with ornamental sumac, and some people may be less than thrilled.
You can control the plants’ spread, though. When you plant harmless sumac, it is helpful if you surround the area where you want it to stay by building a small wall using paving stones. Dig a ditch about a foot deep all around and set the paving stones in vertically. Shore up the sides with soil or cement to keep the stones in place.
Sumac roots typically do not go any deeper than about 10 inches, so your little wall should keep your tree fairly contained. Do give the tree plenty of room to send out a few shoots for new trees. Remember that they like to grow in groves because their root systems are shallow. A single tree will be subject to falling over in high winds if it has no companions to help it stand.
Because ornamental sumac root systems are long but stay near the surface, you can control some spread with this method. Of course, this won’t help much with spread by seed. If seed propagation results in unwanted upstarts, spray them with herbicide or a vinegar mixture. Because the root system is so extensive this probably won’t do you much good in the long run.
You are probably better off keeping unwanted newcomers mowed. Goats would probably enjoy eating these little suckers as well. If you are very determined and like hard work, you can seek out individual suckers, chop them back by hand and paint their stumps with herbicide. Killing sumac stumps is a futile pursuit, and honestly, you could be at it for years with little or no results because of the spread of seeds and the robust root system.
The best way to approach controlling ornamental sumac is just to understand that it is going to spread. Plant it appropriately. If you don’t have room for it, don’t get it. If you already have it and don’t want it, you might be better off and more at peace with an attitude adjustment than attempts to eradicate it.
Ornamental sumac is an attractive, useful plant that has the potential to improve your immediate environment, support local wildlife diversity, add fall and winter interest to your yard and garden and enrich your daily diet and your everyday life.