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Poison Sumac

We all know weeds are an annoyance. They establish themselves in areas they aren’t wanted, destroy gardens, and ruin landscape aesthetics. While most weeds are unwelcome for these reasons alone, it’s safe to say that a poisonous weed is the worst type of all.

Poison Sumac is a type of weed that should not only be destroyed because of its tendency to pop up in unwanted places, but it should also be eliminated for health and safety. 

Keep reading to learn all about this nasty weed, including how to identify it, ways to get rid of it, and how to keep it from returning. 

A plant closely resembling poison sumac.

Where It Came From

Poison Sumac, also known as Poison Elder, is native to eastern Canada and eastern regions of the U.S. What many don’t know is that this plant is part of the cashew family.

These weeds originated in swampy acidic soils throughout North America. Today, it is found all throughout the continent and continues to thrive in humid, marshy, and swampy areas.

How to Identify Poison Sumac

There are two types of Sumac plants. One is harmless, and the other is poisonous. In the following sections, we’ll highlight some ways you can distinguish the poisonous from the harmless variety. 


An illustration of poison sumac leaves and berries.

The Poison Sumac plant has a cluster of leaflets that each connects to the plant’s main stem. These leaflets of the Poisonous Sumac are smooth-edged, unlike those of the harmless variety, which are much more jagged. 

The leaves of a Poison Sumac plant are typically green, but during the fall, they turn to a bright shade of red.


The main difference between the poisonous and harmless varieties of the Sumac plants is their berries. On the Poison Sumac, you’ll find clusters of light-green to white berries that hang low on its branches. 

Harmless Sumac plants have berries that have an upright growth pattern, which is helpful when trying to differentiate between the two.  

White berries on a plant that resembles poison sumac.


Poison Sumac plants can be found as far north as Maine and south as Florida. It travels west over to Texas but is mostly seen within the regions of the Great Lakes and coastal planes. This weed grows best in wet soils, like along rivers, swamps, and marshes.

What Makes It a Weed

An invasive nature is the hallmark feature of any type of weed, and Poison sumac is highly invasive. It can potentially form large spherical clones that create a dome-like appearance. This cloning habit causes the Poison Sumac to form canopies that shade surrounding plants. 

Because of the shading, native vegetation cannot get the nutrients and sunlight it needs to thrive, causing it to die out. Poison Elder is also one of the most versatile plant species, as it can have many different growth and spreading patterns. 

This means when left unchecked, it can take over and destroy large areas. 

Problems Created by Poison Sumac

In addition to destroying local vegetation, Poison Sumac is toxic, or poisonous, if you will (shocking, right?). If your skin comes in contact with this nasty plant, you’ll likely experience contact dermatitis. This is a skin reaction that causes bumps, blisters, and profuse itching. 

Rash caused by urushiol oil found in poison sumac, poison oak, and poison ivy.

A reaction to the plant’s toxic urushiol oil can happen 24 to 72 hours after exposure and is extremely uncomfortable. 

Contact dermatitis also can turn into an infection characterized by redness, pain, and pus. If Poison Sumac is burned, inhaling the oils can also cause lung irritation. 

How Poison Sumac Spreads

This weed, like many other types, spreads by way of rhizomes. These rhizomes form intricate systems of underground roots that can form shoots. New shoots range from six inches to 10 feet long and enable this plant’s rapid spread.

After its first year of life, Poison Sumac progressively produces multiple stems that are scattered with leaf nodes. These stems grow vertically and produce leaflets and buds that have the potential to grow and form a branch. 

As Poison Sumac branches, it’s able to take over more land area and continue to spread its rhizomes. 

How to Get Rid of It

Using a garden sprayer.

Getting rid of Poison Sumac isn’t simple or fast, but we have some tips to help make this process easier. 

First and foremost, before tackling this job, make sure you’re properly protected from the plant’s poisons. We recommend wearing clothes covering all exposed skin (such as long pants and sleeves), gloves, and boots.

Non-selective herbicides work best to kill Poison Sumac clusters. Cut down the plants to about a foot tall for the best results before applying a generous amount of the chemical.

Prevention is another key factor in reducing the existence of Poison Sumac on your land. Make sure to closely monitor for its return, specifically during spring and summer. As soon as they begin to appear, make sure to remove them by (gloved) hand or spray them with herbicide. 

How to Treat a Poison Sumac Reaction

If you’re unlucky enough to have come in contact with this harmful plant, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to treat a Poison Sumac rash.

The best method of treatment is topical over-the-counter skin ointments or lotions. Zinc acetate, zinc oxide, and calamine are great options for drying the oils and oozing from the rash. Apply colloidal oatmeal or baking soda to the affected areas to reduce the itching. Or try other home remedies to treat rashes caused by urushiol oil.

A mild to moderate rash will go away in 1-14 days, depending on your home treatment and the rash’s severity. However, if the rash spreads all over the body or onto the face, contact a doctor to avoid the risk of infection and other complications. 

Wrapping Up Poison Sumac

A plant resembling poison sumac.

There aren’t many positive things to say about Poison Sumac. As its name suggests, this plant can cause a nasty rash and pretty much destroy any garden or landscape. 

Hopefully, now you know more about avoiding this harmful plant and how to get rid of it.

If you feel like you need to learn more about these pesky garden tenants, check out our weeds page to learn all about different weed varieties, treatment options, and surprising information.