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Linder, R - Poison sumac

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Poison Sumac

Toxicondendron vernix

by: Russ Linder


    If I had to take a guess, I would say that just about everyone reading this has come into contact with Poison Ivy at least once in his or her lifetime; but, I’m sure only a handful of you have had the pleasure of bumping into a pleasant Poison Sumac plant. And I’m sure that some of you have even bumped into it and didn’t even know.


    Poison Sumac, Toxicondendron vernix, is the rarest of the Toxicondendron genus which includes poison ivy and poison sumac. It is native to North America. Poison Sumac is the rarest of the three because it can only thrive in areas that are very wet and warm; it would be classified as noninvasive due to its rarity. Some common locations of Poison Sumac would include the Mississippi River banks and the Florida Wetlands. More broad locations of Poison Sumac would include the East Coast of the United States, all the way up to Quebec, and then across to the far eastern portion of Texas.



  Locations of Poison Sumac  (Sachs 2006)                    A shot of the flowers of Poison Sumac (USDA 2008)


    Poison Sumac is the only actual tree of its genus. In a mature state, it can grow anywhere between six and 20 feet. Each stem of the tree usually consists of seven to 13 smooth leaves. The stem is hairless and is almost always a red color. During the spring, Poison Sumac will grow somewhat unattractive but sweet-smelling flowers. After the flowering period, a fruit is grown. These fruits are white, yellowish, grayish, berries that are arranged in a cluster formation. It follows an annual plant life form.


    Poison Sumac is the only actual tree of its genus. In a mature state, it can grow anywhere between six and 20 feet. Each stem of the tree usually consists of seven to 13 smooth leaves. The stem is hairless and is almost always a red color. During the spring, Poison Sumac will grow somewhat unattractive but sweet-smelling flowers. After the flowering period, a fruit is grown. These fruits are white, yellowish, grayish, berries that are arranged in a cluster formation.


    What a lot of people don’t generally know is that Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac all give humans the exact same type of rash. This rash is caused by a lacquer-like resin in their sap known as urushiol. This is a highly potent substance. For instance, only one nanogram of urushiol is needed to cause a rash on a person, and only ¼ ounce total is needed to give a rash to everyone on earth. That is simply amazing! It’s extremely resilient as well. On average, urushiol can survive on a dead plant for almost five years. (An interesting fact is that most animals are not affected by the urushiol oil in the Poison Sumac plant. Only some of the higher primates have shown to be allergic.)


    Now some of you may wonder, “What should I do if I come into contact with Poison Sumac?” Well to start things off, if you came into contact with an undamaged leaf or stem, you’re fine, but in all reality there is rarely an undamaged leaf or stem. Now first, do NOT rub your skin where the contact was made. This will rub in the oil and you will not be happy with yourself the next day. Second, try to rinse your hands with a rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach solution. This will remove all the oils from your hands. Next, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and preferably cold water and then shower as usual. But sometimes there’s nothing you can do to avoid it - within 12-48 hours after contact, redness and swelling will come. Blisters and swelling should follow. If this happens, there are several ways to easily treat the rash. First, you should ice the irritation to prevent swelling and oozing. You can also apply Calamine lotion to reduce the itch and absorb the oils. Oatmeal baths and oral antihistamines have also been known to help. In very severe cases, you should consult a physician.


Poison Sumac and Its Environment

by: Russ Linder


    Poison sumac, Toxicondendron vernix, is closely related to the other plants included in Toxicondendron which include: climbing poison ivy, non-climbing poison ivy, east poison oak, and west poison oak.  They are close in that they all cause the same delayed contact dermatitis rash. The cause of the rash isn’t the leaf of the plant itself but the urushiol oil that is embedded in the leaf. Poison sumac is different from poison oak and ivy in several ways. Some examples include the following: it is the only actual tree in Toxicondendron genus (toxicondendron is literally translated as “poison tree”); it can grow up to twenty feet tall; and it contains between seven and 13 leaves unlike the traditional three in ivy and oak.  


     Poison sumac is by far the rarest of the Toxicondendron genus. It is native to the temperate broadleaf and mixed forest habitat located in North America according to the WWF, the global conservation organization. The total area that poison sumac inhabits stretches the majority of the east coast of the United States and Canada, all the way up to Quebec and as far west as Texas. Some extremely common Poison Sumac hang-outs include the Florida wetlands and the Mississippi River. This is due to poison sumac’s preference for very moist and wet areas. In general, when the plant is located by a greater amount of water, it tends to grow much larger and fuller.

The wetlands, swamps, and forests that poison sumac inhabits face a plethora of threats. The first and foremost are droughts. The plants located in these wet areas thrive off the large amounts of water located around them. Various insects and animals feed off the plants in these areas and use them for shelter (including poison sumac), and they obviously depend on the large amount of water in these habitats. In the case of the droughts, plants in these habitats die, which causes the animal life to lose the necessary shelter and food in order to survive.


    Another threat to the habitat of poison sumac is fire. Some fires are unintentional and caused by nature. These usually occur in time of drought or a dry season. Other fires are intentional. Hunters, for example, will sometimes set fires in the areas that poison sumac plants commonly reside in order to drive out game. Other fires are started by ranchers and farmers trying to expand grazing areas for their cattle. There are many things that can be done in order to prevent fires. First, more information campaigns are needed. People should be educated on the dangers of forest fires and the effect they pose on the ecosystem. Also, ranchers and farmers should be forced to inform the proper authorities when they burn their grazing fields. Next, the hunters that start fires in these habitats need to be strictly punished; the fires they set may be intended to be small but can grow and spread exponentially.


    Pollution is also a large threat to these wet and wooded areas that poison sumac inhabits. Pollution is caused by a many different occurrences including industrial dumping, improper garbage disposal including burning, and even stems from over-fishing. Pollutants that are dispersed from the aforementioned sources are like toxins to the habitat. Tainted water prevents effective growth of the plants and animals that depend on having clean, fresh water. There are many ways that we can stop this pollution. First, an anti-dumping campaign should be established. Another step is for environmental regulators to work with companies and industries to establish better waste management. Recycling and reusing are also effective ways to manage pollution.


     Another threat to poison sumac’s habitat is agriculture. One aspect has already been determined in that farmers and ranchers will sometimes burn these areas to create more land for grazing. Another aspect of agriculture that harms the habitat of poison sumac is the use of pesticides. Farmers will disperse these chemicals on their fields to prevent insects from ruining their crops. Run-off from these chemicals is devastating for poison sumac and its habitat. In Kentucky, where agriculture is plentiful, poison sumac is highly endangered. It is doubtful that this is a coincidence. These are tough threats to combat, mostly because helping the environment could hurt food production for humans. If farmers are not allowed to use pesticides, food production could suffer. Perhaps a solution would be to use more environmentally safe pesticides; the downside to this is that they are generally more expensive.


    There are various other threats to poison sumac’s habitat. These include but are not limited to, flooding caused either by global warming or long periods of rain, commercial development by human exploitation, drainage schemes, the extraction of minerals, tourism, and the construction of dams and dikes.


    Most people think of poison sumac as a pest because of the nasty rashes that can become of human contact with the plant. What people don’t know is that everything has a role in the ecosystem and must be protected. Poison sumac interacts with the animal life and serves its role as food and shelter. It also helps hold soil together with its roots to prevent landslides. We all must do our part to not only protect the wooded and wet areas where poison sumac resides, but the environment as a whole. If we do not, the future may not be so bright.





1. Frankel, Edward. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac and Their Relatives. Pacific Grove, CA: The Boxwood Press. 98 p.

2. Sachs, Jonathan 2006.The Poison Sumac Page. Jonathan Sachs Graphics [Internet]. [Cited 18 February 2008]. Available from: http://www.poison-sumac.org/

3. US Food and Drug Administration 1996. Outsmarting Poison Ivy and its Cousins. FDA Consumer Magazine [Internet].  [Cited 18 February 2008]. Available from: http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/796_ivy.html

4. Dunphy, Jim 2008. Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Information Center. [Internet]. [Cited 18 February 2008]. Available from: http://poisonivy.aesir.com/view/welcome.html

5. Brooks, Bill 1999. The Toxicodendrons: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac. [Internet]. [Cited 18 February 2008]. Available from: http://nac.tamu.edu/x075bb/caddo/poison.html

6. WWF 2006. Selection of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Terrestrial Habitats. [Internet]. [Cited 29 February 2008]. Available from: http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/where_we_work/ecoregions/about/habitat_types/selecting_terrestrial_ecoregions/index.cfm

7. Vanega, Amanda 2004. Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve: Threats. [Internet]. [Cited 4 March 2008]. Available from: http://www.parkswatch.org/parkprofile.php?l=eng&country=mex&park=pcbr&page=thr#top

8. USDA 2008. Plants Profile – Toxicondendron vernix. [Internet]. [Cited 4 March 2008]. Available from: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=TOVE



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