Poison Sumac vs. Staghorn Sumac: The Major Differences

Sumac is a genus of flowering plants that includes over 250 species. Two of the most common sumac species in North America are poison sumac and staghorn sumac. While they share some similarities, there are some key differences between these two plants that you need to be aware of.

An Overview of Poison Sumac

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a woody shrub or small tree that can grow up to 15 feet tall. It is native to the eastern United States and Canada, ranging from Ontario and Maine, south to Florida and west to Texas.

Some key facts about poison sumac:

  • It has smooth, hairless stems that are gray to reddish in color. The stems may have some small lenticels (raised pores).
  • The leaves are arranged in pairs along the stem and have 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets per leaf. The leaflets are 2-6 inches long.
  • Poison sumac has drooping clusters of pale yellow or cream-colored berries.
  • All parts of the poison sumac plant, including the roots, stems, leaves and berries, contain urushiol – an oily, allergenic compound that causes an itchy rash in most people if it comes in contact with the skin.
  • Poison sumac thrives in wet, swampy areas. You’ll often find it growing in peat bogs, swamps, marshes and wetlands throughout its range.
  • Poison sumac is often confused with non-poisonous sumac species like staghorn sumac. It’s important to be able to tell the difference to avoid skin irritation.

An Overview of Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is also a woody shrub or small tree, typically growing up to 18-20 feet in height. It is native to eastern and central North America.

Some key facts about staghorn sumac:

  • It has stout, densely hairy stems that are gray to reddish-brown in color. The velvety hairs give the stems a fuzz or “staghorn” appearance.
  • The leaves are arranged in pairs along the stems and have 11-31 pointed, toothed leaflets per leaf. The leaflets are 3-5 inches long.
  • Staghorn sumac produces large, cone-shaped clusters of bright red berries in late summer/early fall. The berries often persist through winter.
  • Unlike poison sumac, staghorn sumac does not contain urushiol and is not poisonous. The plant sap may cause minor irritation in some people.
  • Staghorn sumac thrives in dry, upland areas. Look for it growing along the edges of fields, roadsides, gardens and cleared forests.
  • Staghorn sumac provides food and habitat for wildlife. The berries are edible and can be made into a lemonade-like drink.

The Major Differences Between the Two Plants

Now that we’ve covered some background on both plants, let’s look at the major differences between poison sumac and staghorn sumac:

Habitat and Growing Conditions

  • Poison sumac grows exclusively in wet areas like swamps, bogs and marshes.
  • Staghorn sumac prefers dry, upland sites. You’ll find it in fields, clearings, etc.

Stem Appearance

  • Poison sumac has smooth, hairless stems that are gray to reddish in color.
  • Staghorn sumac gets its name from the velvety, hairy covering on new stem growth that resembles a stag’s horn.

Leaf Appearance

  • Poison sumac leaves have 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets per leaf.
  • Staghorn sumac leaves have 11-31 coarsely toothed, pointed leaflets per leaf.

Color of Berries

  • Poison sumac has drooping clusters of whitish, pale yellow or cream-colored berries.
  • Staghorn sumac has large, upright, conical clusters of bright red berries.


  • Poison sumac contains urushiol and can cause an itchy, blistering rash if any plant part touches skin.
  • Staghorn sumac does not contain urushiol and is not poisonous, though may cause minor irritation in some people.

How to Identify and Distinguish Poison Sumac from Staghorn Sumac

Here are some tips to tell poison sumac and staghorn sumac apart:

  • Examine the habitat – is the plant growing in a wet, swampy area or an upland site? Poison sumac only grows in very wet areas.
  • Look closely at the stems. Poison sumac stems are smooth and hairless, while staghorn sumac stems are densely covered in reddish hairs, giving them a furry or velvety look.
  • Check the underside of the leaves. Poison sumac leaflets have no hairs and smooth edges. Staghorn sumac leaflets are usually fuzzy and have a toothed margin.
  • Look at the color of the berries. Poison sumac has whitish or yellow berries, while staghorn sumac has bright red berries.
  • Crush a leaf or stem and smell it. Staghorn sumac has a lemon-like, citrusy scent when crushed. Poison sumac does not.
  • Examine the leaflets. Poison sumac has 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets. Staghorn sumac has 11-31 pointed, toothed leaflets.
  • Look at the clustering pattern. Poison sumac hangs in loose, drooping clusters. Staghorn sumac grows in dense, upright, conical clusters.

If you aren’t sure, don’t touch the plant! The two can hybridize, so if a plant has characteristics of both it may be best to avoid contact. When in doubt, steer clear.

How Poison Sumac Can Affect You if Touched or Ingested

Poison sumac contains urushiol, which can cause an allergic skin reaction and other symptoms if you come in contact with the plant:

Skin reaction: In most people, poison sumac causes a red, itchy, swollen rash within 12-48 hours of skin contact. Fluid-filled blisters may develop. The rash typically lasts 1-3 weeks and can worsen with repeated exposure.

Other symptoms: Some people experience headache, fever, body aches and swollen glands. In severe cases, poison sumac can cause breathing difficulty, low blood pressure and loss of vision.

Eye exposure: Rubbing the eyes or touching the face after contact with poison sumac can cause the urushiol oil to irritate the eyes. This leads to redness, pain, swelling and blurred vision.

Ingestion: Eating poison sumac leaves, stems or berries can irritate the mouth and digestive tract, causing drooling, upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea.

Smoke inhalation: Burning poison sumac and inhaling the smoke can cause nose, throat and lung irritation.

If you think you’ve been exposed to poison sumac, wash the area thoroughly with soap and cool water as soon as possible. Antihistamine pills or creams can help relieve itching. Seek medical care for severe rashes, difficulty breathing, or if the rash affects a large part of the body.

Growing and Removing Poison Sumac Safely

Poison sumac spreads easily via creeping roots, underground stems and by seed, which are dispersed by birds and other wildlife. Here are some tips for controlling or removing poison sumac:

  • Wear gloves, long sleeves, pants and closed toe shoes when working near poison sumac. Avoid skin contact.
  • Apply glyphosate or triclopyr-based herbicides to poison sumac leaves, stems and cut stumps to kill the plant. Use caution not to spray non-target plants.
  • For small plants, carefully dig or pull up the entire plant by the roots, making sure to remove all the root fragments. Seal pulled plants in thick plastic bags and dispose of properly.
  • Larger thickets can be controlled by cutting the stems close to the ground repeatedly throughout the growing season to deplete root reserves. The plant will eventually die.
  • Always wash your clothes, tools, gloves, shoes and skin thoroughly after handling poison sumac plants. Urushiol oil can remain on surfaces for years. Proper disposal and cleaning is crucial.
  • Do not compost or burn poison sumac plants. Urushiol may be released into the air and cause lung irritation. Always seal and dispose of pulled plants at a waste collection site.

With proper identification, removal techniques and protective clothing, you can control poison sumac safely on your property. If in doubt about how to control or handle it, seek professional help.

Uses and Benefits of Non-Poisonous Staghorn Sumac

In contrast to poison sumac, staghorn sumac does not contain urushiol and is not toxic. Here are some ways the staghorn sumac plant can be used:

Wildlife food source – Birds, deer, rabbits and other wildlife feed on the red berries of staghorn sumac. The plant provides cover and nesting sites as well.

Edible berries – The red berries can be soaked in cool water to make a tangy lemonade-like drink. The berries contain vitamin C. Caution: Some people may have allergies to sumac berries.

Dyes and ink – The berries produce a burgundy dye. The sap makes an ink that turns black when exposed to air.

Tanning leather – Tannins in the leaves, bark and roots can be used to tan leather and preserve animal hides.

Smoking – The leaves are sometimes dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking. Native Americans mixed it with tobacco for use in ceremonial pipes.

Ornamental landscaping – Staghorn sumac is planted in gardens and along roadsides for its vibrant fall foliage and striking red berry clusters.

Windbreak and soil erosion control – It is used in shelterbelts, hedgerows and soil conservation areas to reduce wind erosion.

Medicinal uses – Historically staghorn sumac roots were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The berries were made into tonics to treat colds.

With its non-poisonous nature and multiple uses, staghorn sumac is a great alternative to poison sumac for landscaping, food and other applications. Proper plant identification is key before using sumac species.

Frequently Asked Questions About Poison Sumac and Staghorn Sumac

Can you get poison sumac from burning it?

Yes, inhaling the smoke from burning poison sumac is very dangerous. The smoke contains urushiol which can cause severe allergic reactions in the lungs and airways. Never burn any part of a poison sumac plant.

What does poison sumac rash look like?

The rash begins as intense itching, followed by redness and swelling. Blisters that ooze fluid and become crusted over often form. The rash typically occurs in streaks or lines where the plant brushed against the skin. It can cover large areas of the body.

Is staghorn sumac poisonous to touch?

No. Unlike poison sumac, staghorn sumac does not contain urushiol and is generally not poisonous. The sap may cause minor skin irritation in some individuals. The berries are edible when soaked in water.

Why does poison sumac grow in swamps?

Poison sumac thrives in wet, swampy areas because it is extremely tolerant of flooded, oxygen-depleted soils. The wet roots can survive long periods underwater. Staghorn sumac prefers drier upland habitats.

Can you get poison sumac in the winter?

Yes. Poison sumac stems, roots and berries still contain the toxic urushiol oil in winter. Contact with dormant plants can cause an itchy rash, even when the leaves have fallen off.

What’s the fastest way to get rid of poison sumac?

Applying concentrated glyphosate or triclopyr herbicides directly to the plant’s stems and leaves is the quickest way to kill poison sumac. The plant will be dead within 2-4 weeks. Proper herbicide application techniques must be followed.

What does poison sumac smoke do?

Inhaling poison sumac smoke is extremely dangerous due to urushiol present in the smoke. The smoke can cause redness, swelling and blisters on the mouth, nose, throat and lungs if inhaled. Never burn poison sumac.

Is staghorn sumac good for erosion control?

Yes. Staghorn sumac has an extensive root system that holds soil in place. Its dense growth habit also slows water flow and traps soil. Planting it along slopes, stream banks and in ditches can help reduce soil erosion.

Can you make lemonade from staghorn sumac?

Yes! The red berry clusters of staghorn sumac can be soaked in cool water to extract a tangy, lemon-flavored drink. It provides a source of vitamin C. Some people are allergic, so try just a small amount at first.


Poison sumac and staghorn sumac share some similar traits, but there are very important differences between these two sumac species. Poison sumac contains toxic urushiol and grows exclusively in wet, swampy areas. Staghorn sumac lacks urushiol, thrives in dry sites, and has edible berries used to make lemonade. Familiarize yourself with the identification tips covered in this article to avoid coming in contact with poisonous poison sumac as you explore the outdoors. With its wildlife and landscape uses, non-poisonous staghorn sumac can make a great addition to gardens and natural areas.