How to Eradicate Poison Sumac


Poison sumac is a woody shrub that can grow up to 20 feet tall. It is common in swampy, boggy areas in the eastern United States and Canada. All parts of the poison sumac plant contain urushiol, an oily compound that causes an itchy, irritating rash on contact with skin in most people. Eradicating poison sumac is important to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from getting this uncomfortable rash. With some knowledge of the plant’s growth habits and persistence, the proper tools, and safe handling practices, you can successfully remove poison sumac from your property.

Identifying Poison Sumac

The first step in eradicating poison sumac is learning how to identify it. Here are some key characteristics to look for:

  • Growth habit – Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree. It has multiple smooth, upright stems with few branches except at the top. It can grow up to 20 feet tall.
  • Leaves – The leaves are arranged in pairs along the stem, with one leaf across from the other. Each leaf has 7-13 pointed, oval leaflets with smooth edges. The leaflets are 2-6 inches long.
  • Flowers – Small greenish flowers bloom from June to July. They are arranged in drooping clusters at the end of branches.
  • Fruit – White berries appear in loose clusters after the flowers fade. They are about 1/4 inch in diameter.
  • Habitat – Poison sumac grows in very wet areas like swamps, bogs, and flooded areas. It is often found along streams and ponds.
  • Season – The leaves emerge in spring and turn bright red and orange in fall before dropping. Poison sumac is deciduous and loses its leaves in winter.

If you spot a shrub with these characteristics in a wet area, it is likely poison sumac. Double check images online to confirm identification before attempting removal. Poison ivy and poison oak can look similar, but have different growth habits.

When to Remove Poison Sumac

Summer and early fall are the best times to remove poison sumac. The soil is drier in summer, making access into swampy areas easier. The plant is also more visible when fully leafed out. Avoid removing in spring when the ground is wet and muddy. Late fall removal can be done after the leaves drop, but the bare stems with berries are harder to spot.

Wear protective clothing when removing poison sumac no matter what time of year. Long pants, long sleeves and gloves are a must. Carefully inspect and wash clothing after to avoid leftover plant oil causing a rash. Work boots provide ankle protection in muddy areas. Use caution on ladders when cutting high branches.

Only remove poison sumac on calm, dry days. Wind can blow pieces of the plant around, spreading the oil. Rain allows the oil to drip off plants more easily. Hot, humid days make protective clothing more uncomfortable to work in.

Tools Needed for Removal

Removing a large poison sumac shrub requires some specialized tools for both cutting and safely handling the plant. Here is a list of recommended tools:

  • Loppers – Long handled loppers or pruning shears allow you to cut stems from a distance. Look for loppers at least 32 inches long.
  • Garden cart – A wheeled cart makes hauling cut branches much easier. Use one with pneumatic tires that won’t get stuck in mud.
  • Tarps – Heavy duty tarps can be placed under the shrub when cutting or used to drag cut branches to a burn pile.
  • Long sleeves and pants – Wear tightly woven, durable clothing that covers skin completely. Avoid absorbent fabrics like cotton that can hold plant oils.
  • Rubber boots – Knee high rubber boots offer protection from wet areas around poison sumac. Make sure they have non-slip soles.
  • Gloves – Pick puncture resistant gloves that cover wrists completely when arms are extended. Leather or coated canvas gloves work well.
  • Safety goggles – Goggles that fully seal around the eyes and don’t fog up easily are best.
  • Shovel – Use a shovel to dig up and remove any remaining roots after cutting at ground level.
  • Brush killer – An herbicide containing triclopyr is effective at killing any poison sumac regrowth. Use carefully according to label directions.

Gather all needed tools and protective gear before starting poison sumac removal. Make sure tools are cleaned and disinfected thoroughly before storing after working around poison sumac.

Cutting Technique

With proper tools and clothing ready, now you are set to start cutting. Use the following techniques for safe, effective poison sumac removal:

  • Clear away any brush or debris at the base of the plant first to improve access. Place a tarp underneath the shrub.
  • Beginning at ground level, use loppers to cut all stems and branches at their base. This removes the above ground portion.
  • Angle the loppers down and away from your body when making cuts to avoid splattering or dripping sap.
  • Allow cut pieces to drop onto the tarp. Don’t catch or grab falling branches.
  • Work from the outer stems toward the main trunk to methodically remove all branches.
  • When finished cutting at the base, carefully drag the tarp with cuttings away to a burn area.
  • Avoid contact between exposed skin and the cut shrub pieces at all times when handling and transporting.
  • Do not attempt to shred or chip up cut poison sumac branches. The plant oils can aerosolize and cause severe reactions.

Place all cuttings into a burn pile or other proper receptacle. Never compost or discard poison sumac on open ground where new plants could take root. Monitor the cut area for several weeks and treat any regrowth with an appropriate herbicide.

Root Removal and Treatment

Cutting alone is often not sufficient to fully eradicate poison sumac. New shoots can grow from any remaining roots. Here are some options for removing roots:

  • Carefully dig around the outer drip line of the cut stump using a shovel. Try to extract as many roots as possible.
  • For larger root networks that can’t be fully dug out, apply a concentrated brush killer into the root zone. Triclopyr formulations work well. Follow label instructions carefully.
  • Monitor the treated area for several months. Repeat herbicide application to any new shoots that emerge from untreated roots.
  • Once all vegetation is dead, the root mass will slowly decay on its own. This can take 1-2 years for larger shrubs.
  • Covering the dead stump with heavy black plastic secured with landscape staples can speed decomposition and prevent regeneration.
  • For full eradication, the stump can be ground out mechanically once the shrub is dead. However, this risks spreading plant oils from any remaining roots.

Properly disposing of excess soil and roots removed during digging is also crucial so pieces don’t take root elsewhere. Bag material securely and dispose of according to local guidelines. Careful follow up monitoring and treatment provides the best chance of completely eliminating poison sumac from an area.

Poison Sumac Lookalikes

When identifying plants to remove, it’s important to note some common lookalikes that are often mistaken for poison sumac:

Staghorn Sumac – A shorter shrub, up to 15 feet tall. Leaves have fewer, wider leaflets. Red fuzzy berries on upright cones. Grows in drier sites.

Winged Sumac – Shrub up to 15 feet tall. Leaves have more leaflets than staghorn sumac. Berries in tight clusters hugging stem. Prefers sandy soils.

Smooth Sumac – Shrub up to 13 feet tall. Leaflets are finely toothed. Red berry clusters are short, loose, and hanging down. Grows in dry, upland areas.

Dog Hobble – A low, vinescent shrub around 2 feet tall. Leaves are rounded. Grows in drier soils, often found along edges of wooded areas.

None of these sumac lookalikes produce the toxic urushiol oil of poison sumac. Make absolutely certain of identification before removing any shrub. When in doubt, consult an expert or arborist to confirm. Never blindly cut something that could potentially be poison sumac.

Prevention of Regrowth

Once a poison sumac shrub has been removed, you don’t want to go through all that work again. Here are some tips to prevent regrowth and maintain control:

  • Monitor the area, especially around the root zone, for months after removal looking for any new shoots coming up.
  • Spot treat small regrowth by carefully applying a targeted brush killer containing triclopyr. Follow product instructions.
  • For recurring sprouts, a foliar spray of triclopyr on leaves can provide control. Avoid contacting desirable plants with herbicide.
  • Remove competing vegetation around the site that could allow poison sumac to return. Plant grass or non-invasive groundcovers.
  • Cut back or eliminate other woody species through the root zone that could facilitate poison sumac regrowing in the area.
  • Properly dispose of any poison sumac seeds, stems, or roots found germinating in compost or waste piles by incineration.
  • Maintain drainage improvements such as ditches or subsurface tiles that deprive the root system of needed moisture.
  • Periodic prescribed fire can help control woody regrowth if performed safely by professionals.

With vigilance and persistence, areas where poison sumac has been eliminated can remain clear long term. Just one overlooked sprout or piece of root left behind can lead to the whole battle starting over again.

Safe Handling of Poison Sumac

When removing or disposing of poison sumac, special precautions are necessary to avoid contact with the toxic urushiol oil in the plant’s tissues. Here are some tips for safe handling:

  • Wear disposable gloves while handling any plant parts and remove gloves properly without touching the outsides after use.
  • After finishing work, immediately wash skin thoroughly with soap and cold water. Rubbing alcohol can also help remove residual oils.
  • Avoid touching your face or eyes when working around poison sumac plants and residues. The oil can easily be transferred.
  • Place plant parts in double heavy duty contractor bags for disposal, sealing them securely. This prevents spread of oils.
  • Clean tools and protective clothing carefully with rubbing alcohol. Wash clothing separately with detergent and hot water.
  • When burning plant debris, do so only in very dry conditions with good airflow to disperse smoke. Stay well upwind of smoke.
  • Never attempt to compost or mulch any poison sumac plant parts. The oils can remain active even in composted material.
  • Dispose of removed plant parts properly at a regulated landfill or waste disposal site. Never dump poison sumac plants and roots casually.

Stay vigilant when handling poison sumac before, during, and after removal until all plant debris has been incinerated or disposed of in a sealed landfill. Carelessness could allow the rash-causing oils to easily spread.

What to Do If Exposed to Urushiol

Even when taking precautions, exposure to poison sumac sap may still occur. Here is what to do if skin contacts urushiol oil:

  • Carefully remove any contaminated clothing and jewelry to avoid spreading the oil. Handle only with gloves or tweezers.
  • Wash exposed skin right away with lots of cold water. Hot water can open pores and exacerbate the reaction. Use soap if available.
  • Wash skin again with an alcohol-based cleanser like rubbing alcohol if possible. This can help dissolve and rinse away some residual oil.
  • Apply a hydrocortisone cream to reddened areas to help alleviate inflammation and itching. Oral antihistamines can also reduce skin reaction.
  • Take a cool bath or shower in one or two hours to further wash away any remaining oils on the skin’s surface. Use soap but not hot water.
  • If a severe rash develops, seek medical attention. Blistering reactions may require steroid treatment and antibiotics for infection risk.
  • Do not scratch areas once they start itching, as this can worsen irritation and increase risk of infection. Trim fingernails to minimize damage from scratching.
  • Wash all clothing worn while removing poison sumac separately with detergent and hot water. Any plant oils transferred to clothing can easily re-expose skin.

By acting quickly at the first sign of exposure, the severity of the reaction can usually be reduced. Contaminated areas should improve within 1-3 weeks as the rash runs its course.

Hiring a Professional

For large, mature stands of poison sumac or difficult to access locations, hiring a professional tree removal or landscaping service may be the smartest option. Some advantages of professional poison sumac removal include:

  • Access to specialized safety gear and protective equipment unavailable to homeowners.
  • Ability to take down tall, multi-stemmed shrubs and access remote sites like swamps.
  • Training and experience identifying poison sumac reliably and distinguishing lookalikes.
  • Knowledge of the most effective herbicides and proper application for target specificity.
  • Resources to efficiently dispose of large volumes of hazardous plant debris.
  • Insurance coverage in event of personal injury or property damage during removal work.

When contacting pros, verify they are familiar working around poisonous plants like poison sumac. A certified arborist can assess your situation and provide removal and control recommendations. Be sure to get an estimate of costs beforehand. Removing a single large poison sumac shrub can range from $300-$700 depending on accessibility. Compare rates from at least 3 services before selecting one.


Here are some common questions about eradicating poison sumac:

Does poison sumac grow back after cutting it down?

Yes, new shoots can potentially sprout from any remaining roots after cutting down poison sumac. Some type of herbicide or root removal is generally needed for full eradication.

Can I burn poison sumac?

Poison sumac and other toxicodendrons should only be burned with great caution. The smoke can contain urushiol particles and cause respiratory distress if inhaled. Avoid breathing smoke from controlled burns of poison sumac.

What kind of herbicide kills poison sumac?

Systemic herbicides containing the active ingredient triclopyr are highly effective at killing poison sumac roots and preventing regrowth when applied properly. Glyphosate can also be used.

Does vinegar kill poison sumac?

Plain household vinegar is not strong enough to kill poison sumac when applied on leaves or stems. High concentration horticultural vinegar products may provide control but are not selective and can damage other plants.

What animals eat poison sumac?

Deer, rabbits, and birds have demonstrated resistance to urushiol and may browse poison sumac shoots and berries. However, livestock like cattle, horses, and sheep are susceptible and should not be allowed access.

Is it OK to burn poison sumac wood?

Once the plant is fully dead, urushiol residues in the wood decline over 12+ months, making it safer to handle. Yet caution is still advised when burning due to residual oils potentially vaporizing if burned. Wear protective equipment and avoid breathing smoke.

Can you get poison sumac from a dead plant?

Yes, urushiol oils can remain active in plant tissues for up to 5 years after a plant has died. Always exercise extreme caution when handling or disposing of any poison sumac plant parts, whether alive or dead. Never compost any piece of a poison sumac plant.

Does bleach kill poison sumac?

Bleach is ineffective at neutralizing or destroying urushiol oils. Use rubbing alcohol, dish soap, or specialty poison ivy washes to clean skin, tools, and clothing exposed to poison sumac. Avoid using bleach solutions.


Working to eradicate poison sumac from your property is challenging but doable with the proper preparations. Correct plant identification, protective equipment, cutting technique, root removal, and vigilant monitoring can all help lead to success. Either manage the process carefully yourself or hire a professional service for large infestations or difficult sites. Avoid complacency and always exercise caution when handling and disposing of poison sumac to prevent painful urushiol reactions. With persistence and thoroughness, your property can be poison sumac-free.