Sumac vs Poison Sumac: What are the Differences?

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Learn how to tell these plants apart and avoid getting a nasty rash!

Do you know the difference between sumac and poison sumac? We’ll cut through the confusion for you in this article.

Read on to find out how to tell the difference between them. We’ve got 6 ways you can tell poison sumac vs staghorn sumac. Plus lots more tips for identifying and dealing with poison sumac.

Sumac vs Poison Sumac

What is Sumac?

There are around 35 different types of sumac, flowering plants that belong to the genus Rhus. They are tall shrubs that can reach 30 feet, with fruits that grow in clusters known as drupes. Sumac grows in many parts of the world, including East Asia, Africa and North America.

Traditionally sumac has been used by different cultures in diverse ways. The fruits of some types of sumac are ground and used as a spice, particularly the species known as tanner’s sumac (Rhus coriaria) in Middle Eastern cooking. The edible berries of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are used in beverages in North America.

Sumac vs Poison Sumac

The vibrant red colour of sumac fruits has served as a dye, often used in the production of Moroccan leather. Sumac leaves and fruits are combined with tobacco to make traditional smoking mixtures in native American culture. The sturdy hollow stems are used in pipes and to tap maple trees.

While many species of sumac are incredibly useful, the poison sumac can present a health hazard. So how do you tell them apart?

What is Poison Sumac?

Poison sumac is more closely related to poison ivy and poison oak than it is to the sumac plants we talked about above.

Things got confusing because poison sumac, along with poison ivy and poison oak, all used to be grouped together under the Rhus name. This put them in the same group as harmless types of sumac.  

Botanists have decided to rename these ‘poison’ plants. The name they now all share, Toxicodendron, tells you immediately that they could be toxic for you!

Poison sumac used to be known as Rhus vernix. You may still find it called this. Officially it is now known as Toxicodendron vernix. Poison ivy is now Toxicodendron radicans; poison oak is Toxicodendron diversilobum.

Sumac vs Poison Sumac

All of these plants – poison sumac, poison ivy and poison oak – contain a substance called urushiol, which can cause allergic reactions. This could mean you end up with a nasty rash.

In severe cases, the leaves of poison sumac have been known to cause lung damage and worse when burnt and the smoke inhaled.

If you are trying to get rid of poison sumac from your yard, don’t try to burn it out. Getting goats in to eat it is a better solution! The plant is not toxic to them. Birds and other animals happily eat the berries too.

Staghorn Sumac vs Poison Sumac – how do you tell which is which?

As we’ve seen above, these two plants are related. They have some features in common. They can both grow into tall bushes or trees of up to 30 feet. They are both deciduous. And they also both have attractive autumn colours.

But there are ways to tell them apart which will save you getting a rash. Here are six tips for telling poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) from staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina):

Sumac vs Poison Sumac

Staghorn Sumac vs Poison Sumac: 6 Ways to Tell the Difference

  • The most obvious difference is that poison sumac has white berries, not red berries. The red fruits are a distinctive characteristic of Rhus plants such as staghorn sumac.
  • Poison sumac berries are flattish, waxy and grow separately, while the red berries of staghorn sumac are fused together.
  • Poison sumac is not likely to grow in the same places as staghorn sumac. Poison sumac likes a very wet, swampy habitat, whereas staghorn sumac prefers dry ground.
  • Staghorn sumacs like to grow together in big groups. By contrast, poison sumac tends to be a solitary plant of the swamps.
  • Poison sumac leaves have smooth edges (don’t touch to find out!); the leaves of staghorn sumac plants are serrated.
  • Poison sumac twigs are smooth, while staghorn sumac branches are hairy.

Does Poison Sumac Vine?

No. Poison ivy can grow into a vine, but poison sumac grows as a shrub or tree.

There is no poison sumac vine. The trunk of well-established poison sumac can get quite thick, so most people think of it as a tree rather than a shrub.

Other Ways to Identify Poison Sumac

Sumac vs Poison Sumac
  • The leaves grow opposite each other on red stems, with a single leaf at the end of each stem.
  • Poison sumac is sometimes called poison dogwood because its bark resembles that of the dogwood tree. Smooth and reddish when young but it can get gnarly and grey when the plant is older.
  • In America, poison sumac only grows in the Eastern and Southeastern US – it’s not found in the Midwest or the western US.

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