Are Sumac Trees Poisonous?

Sumac trees are native to the eastern regions of North America. They are tall plants and can reach up to thirty feet in height. They are popular for their showy autumn colors, which create a magnificent display in gardens and parks. Some people say sumac trees are poisonous, and others say they are not.

There are numerous types of sumac trees, including evergreen and deciduous plants. One of these is known as poison sumac and releases an oil known as urushiol, which is highly toxic, causing a severe rash. The urushiol rash can last for several weeks, and there is no known antidote.

Sumac trees have been given a bad reputation because of one tree in the species. They are beautiful trees that can contribute form and color to a landscape.

Related: 6 Plants That Look Like Poison Sumac

Do Sumac Trees Contain Poison?

There are thirty-five species of sumac trees found in North America. There are several other species of sumac tree found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many of these have found their way to North America and can also be seen growing in gardens.

Only one species of sumac is poisonous, and this is aptly called poison sumac. The Latin name, Toxicodendron vernix, indicates the toxicity of this tree. Poison sumac secretes an oil known as urushiol, which is highly irritating and toxic.

Urushiol is made up of several cytotoxic oils. The term cytotoxic indicates that they attack the body’s cells. Urushiol is found in other poisonous plants such as poison oak and poison ivy.

Staghorn sumac. Rhus typhina
karen_hine Staghorn sumac – Rhus typhina

Urushiol is rapidly absorbed by the skin within a few minutes. It interacts with dendritic cells (also called cells of Langerhans) of the immune system. The dendritic cells move via the lymph system to the lymph nodes, where they influence the T-lymphocytes. This results in the production of cytokines ( inflammatory substances) that attack the skin cells.

Urushiol, therefore, uses the body’s systems against itself to create an allergic, inflammatory response.

What Are The Symptoms Of Sumac Tree Poisoning?

The primary symptom of sumac poisoning is allergic dermatitis. This would present as redness, swelling, itching, and burning of the skin. A rash that includes oozing blisters will spread over the area exposed to the poison sumac tree.

The individual that has been exposed to poison sumac will have painful swollen lymph nodes. If poison sumac is burnt, the smoke irritates the lungs causing fluid in the lungs and inflammation that can be fatal.

It is important to note that even dead poison sumac trees can transfer the oils to people and poison them. Dead poison sumacs must be treated with as much caution as live trees.

What Should I Do If I Have Contact With Poison Sumac?

Urushiol from poison sumac is absorbed within minutes. It is important to immediately wash your skin with soap and water to remove as much urushiol as possible before absorption. If the oil has been absorbed, then cleaning the area will not be of any help.

You should carefully remove your clothing, trying to minimize contact with the outer layers that had contact with the urushiol. Your clothing should be washed in hot water with a detergent that removes oils.

There is no antidote to poison sumac. The rash and inflammation may appear within a few hours or up to forty-eight hours after contact. The rash can be present for several weeks, and treatment is challenging.

The best results have been obtained using topical cortisone to treat the rash. Some doctors prescribe oral cortisone to counteract the inflammation and swelling of the lymph nodes.

Is A Sumac Rash Contagious?

Sumac rash is not contagious in the traditional idea of an infectious disease. The notion that the rash is contagious arose because the oils remain on the person’s skin or clothing and can be transferred to other people or animals through direct contact.

Are Sumac Trees Poisonous To Dogs And Cats?

Sumac trees are not generally poisonous to dogs and cats. Their fur protects their skin from contact with the oils, and some animals can even eat the plant without suffering ill effects. Certain animals may be more allergic and will show symptoms similar to human symptoms.

Hairless animals may be more prone to allergic reactions. Dogs and cats that brush through poison sumac can transfer the oil from their coats to their owners. This results in the owners having symptoms from poison sumac without being in contact with the plant at all.

The animals should be washed thoroughly using a degreasing shampoo and warm water. The animal should be rinsed copiously. The person cleaning the animal should wear gloves and protective sleeves. This could be a tricky procedure if your cat has poison sumac oils on its coat – they do not usually appreciate being bathed!

Remember to wash your pet’s collar as it could have poison sumac oils on it.

Smooth Sumac
Homer Edward Price Smooth Sumac

Are Birds Poisoned By Sumac Trees?

Birds and small animals are often attracted to the fruit or drupes produced by sumac trees. They feast on these with no apparent ill effects.

How Do You Remove Poison Sumac Trees?

If you can afford it, the best option is to contact a professional company to remove the poison sumac. If you intend to do it yourself, you need to take some precautions.

  1. Wear protective clothing, including gloves, thick or water-proof clothing, goggles, a face mask, and boots.
  2. Cut the sumac tree off at ground level using a saw or garden loppers, depending on the diameter of the stem and your preference of tool.
  3. Use a herbicide to treat the remaining stump so that it does not regrow.
  4. If you need to dig out the roots, treat them as carefully as the rest of the plant as they also secrete urushiol.
  5. Do not under any circumstances burn the plant you have cut down.
  6. The plant should be disposed of by putting it in a plastic bag and taking it to the municipal dump if this is allowed. If this is not allowed, you can douse the plant in herbicide and bury it in a hole that is at least three feet deep.

Are There Non-Toxic Sumac Trees?

Many sumac trees are non-toxic. The staghorn, winged, and smooth sumac are some popular choices for plants that display magnificent autumn colors. Many non-poisonous sumac trees provide edible fruit that is high in vitamin C and can be used to make a delicious fruit drink.


Most sumac trees are not poisonous and can be enjoyed for their wonderful foliage and fruit. The poison sumac is highly toxic and can even be fatal if smoke from a burning plant is inhaled. Poison sumac causes a painful, long-lasting rash that is difficult to treat.