Smooth sumac vs staghorn sumac


Poison Sumac: How to Identify It, and What to Do if You’ve Been Exposed

This article is the second in a three part series about poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak, all of which are flowering plants in the Toxicodendron genus of the sumac family, Anacardiaceae. The first article in the series, on poison ivy, can be found here.

Here in Illinois, the roadsides and hilltops are a-blaze with color. Among my favorites in the autumn are the brilliant, toothy leaves of the staghorn sumac tree. I’ve often hiked trails and examined the compound leaves and their spiky flower heads up close. Fortunately, the sumac that grows in our area is primarily Rhus typhina, one of many harmless varieties.

There is, however, a sumac that should be avoided at all costs: Toxicodendron vernix, better known as poison sumac. Poison sumac is one of a trio of plants (poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak) that produce an oil called urushiol, which is a potent allergen. The vast majority of people (estimates range from 60-90%, depending on your source) react to contact with urushiol by developing a distinctive allergic rash with oozing blisters.
Poison sumac can take the form of either a small bush or a woody shrub, and can range in size from 9 to 20 feet tall. Its potential range reaches from USDA zone 3a to 8b. The USDA Plant Database gives a much wider range of distribution (left) than the US Geological Survey (right), but both agree that it is most commonly found in the eastern and southern quadrants of the United States.

Map of Poison Sumac distribution, US Department of Agriculture

Map of Poison Sumac distribution, US Geological Survey

So, how do you know if a sumac in your area is the poisonous variety, or one of the harmless species?

Where is it growing?

Poison sumac, (Toxicodendron vernix or Rhus vernix) is typically found in very wet areas. It often grows in swamps, bogs, or wetlands, sometimes with the roots and lower stems completely submerged. They have a fairly limited range of growth, limited mostly to the eastern 1/3 of the country, as illustrated in the maps above.

In contrast, most other species of sumac prefer dry areas with well-drained soil. They can be found in wooded areas, along fencerows, and along roadsides throughout the entire United States, and much of Canada.

What color are the berries?

The best time to identify the fruits of the trees is in the autumn, when the berries are ripe.

The berries of poison sumac are white or pale green, grow at the base of the leaves and hang downward from the stems, somewhat like a cluster of grapes.

The most common non-poisonous sumac, staghorn sumac, bears bright orange or red berries which grow at the ends of the stems, and they are held upright on the stems.

Winged Sumac, Rhus copallina, also bears dark red berries in an upright formation.

What do the stems and the edges of the leaves look like?

The stems of poison sumac are smooth and hairless, as are the leaves.

Poison Sumac, Summer Colors, with flowers

Poison Sumac, Autumn Color

The stems of most non-poisonous varieties are rough and hairy, though there are some non-poisonous varieties with smoother leaves and stems, such as smooth sumac and winged sumac. The leaves vary widely by species, but most are hairy and have toothed or finely cut leaves. Some, such as the Tiger Eye Sumac pictured below, even resemble the lacy leaves of a Japanese maple tree.

Deeply cut foliage of Tiger’s Eye Staghorn Sumac,
Early Summer Colors

Staghorn Sumac, Autumn Colors

Winged Sumac, Autumn Colors

Staghorn Sumac Stems

Why is it so dangerous?

Poison sumac is far more potent than either poison oak or poison ivy, and is sometimes identified as the most toxic plant species in the United States. Thankfully, it is the least common of the three, and you are unlikely to come into contact with it unless you spend time in swamps and wetlands.
It takes very little of the urushiol oil to cause a horrible reaction, and every time you are exposed, your potential for a reaction increases. Even people who initially have no reaction to contact with urushiol, from any of the plants in this family, can become increasingly sensitized. People who do react tend to have increasingly severe reactions with each exposure, which makes it all the more important to avoid contact with urushiol-producing plants.
There is a connection between allergic reactions to poison ivy, oak,and sumac, and food allergies to other plants in this family, which include cashew nuts, pistachios, and mangoes, among others. If you have a known food allergy to any of these foods, be particularly cautious around poison sumac! Likewise, even if you have never previously reacted to any of those nuts or fruits, you may want to avoid consuming them if you have been exposed to any of the urushiol-producing plants. There are anecdotal accounts of people having severe reactions to the foods after being sensitized by a poison ivy or other urushiol-provoked rash.
One reason the plant is so dangerous is that every part of the plant produces the oils, and they remain active for as long as 5 years, even after the plant is dead. You can contract the rash from the bare stems in the winter, from contacting the roots while digging, or from handling dead and dry leaves. It is especially dangerous to burn any part of this plant, as the oil vaporizes when hot and is distributed in the smoke. Inhaling the airborne particles in the smoke can cause a potentially fatal reaction inside the lungs, or a widespread rash over any exposed skin that the smoke drifts across.

What do I do if I’ve been exposed?

Just like with poison ivy, it is critical to remove the urushiol oil from your skin as soon as possible. Urushiol is absorbed into the skin within 10 minutes of contact, so it is important to wash any exposed parts thoroughly after suspected or known contact. It may take 12 hours or more for the rash to appear, especially on your first exposure, so don’t wait for a reaction to take action!
It is best to use cool water and soap to wash the oils from your skin, as warm water can cause the oil to spread over a larger area. Hot water also opens the pores of the skin, allowing for faster penetration into the skin. Fels naptha soap is often effective at removing the oils thoroughly, as is dish detergent, due to its grease-cutting properties. Another cleanser recommended by the Forestry Service for urushiol removal is called TECNU. It can even be used on leather shoes and porous surfaces. Rubbing alcohol can also help dissolve the oils, though you must be careful not to wipe the area, as this can spread the oils. Even if you wash promptly, you may still experience a rash, but with less severity or a shorter duration.
If you do develop a rash, there are many over-the-counter remedies to help alleviate the symptoms. Creams and lotions that dry up the rash, such as calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams, are commonly used. Cool baths with baking soda, oatmeal, or colloidal baths can provide some relief, as can some topical anesthetics like menthol, benzocaine, and pramoxine, which numb the area temporarily. Oral antihistmines, such as Benadryl, offer some relief, but can make you drowsy.

If the itchiness of the rash is driving you to distraction, there is anecdotal evidence that taking a bath or shower in water as hot as you can stand it, or applying hot compresses to the areas with the worst itching, can give up to several hours of relief. It is important that you only do this after all urushiol oils have been removed from the skin, and be careful not to scald the skin, which would further injure it and slow the healing process. This works by releasing the histamines that build up in the skin from the body’s allergic response to the urushiol oils.

If your rash develops much more quickly, with onset in 4-12 hours instead of 24-48 hours, or if your eyes swell shut or you experience difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately. Some severe reactions require prescription medications, such as steroids to reduce inflammation, or even hospitalization.

How do I control or remove poison sumac?

First, be sure of your identification before you remove the sumac shrubs in question. There is no reason to put forth the expense and effort if you have a stand of staghorn sumac, rather than the toxicodendron variety. If you are certain that it IS poison sumac, and that removal is necessary, be sure to wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves, and boots, covering as much skin as possible. If you have the option of wearing a disposable coverall outfit, that is even better. While you can attempt to control poison sumac at any time of year, you will have the best results if you treat it in May through July while the plants are flowering.
The recommended method of control is to use an herbicide, such as glyphosate (Roundup, Kleenup), which is absorbed through the leaves of the plant. It is a non-selective herbicide, so be careful not to overspray onto plants you want to keep. You can cut the plant back to a foot or so above ground level and apply glyphosate immediately. Poison sumac, like the other plants in this family, are persistent, so repeated applications may be necessary to completely kill the plant. Watch carefully for resprouting or distribution by wildlife, and treat while the seedlings are young. Be very careful how you dispose of any plant matter. Again, do not burn any leaves or woody stems. Bag them and dispose of them in the trash, rather than putting them in landscape waste bags that may be picked up and burned by unsuspecting municipal workers.
Wash any clothes worn while working near poison sumac separately and repeatedly. Tools should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol, to avoid repeated exposure to urushiol oil.

Related links:

Skin Rash Hall of Fame. Some pictures are graphic, so proceed with caution if you have a weak stomach!

Photo Credits, in order of appearance:

(Click on any image to see the original full-sized picture.)

Thumbnail picture at top of article: From Wikimedia Commons, public domain, by Robert H. Mohlenbrock. Original entry here.

USDA Map, from the Plants Database. Public Domain.

US Geological Survey Map, from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Poison Sumac with berries: from Flickr Creative Commons, posted by ornitholoco. Credited to Andy Jones, Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Some rights reserved.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries: Flickr Creative Commons, by Martin LaBar. Some rights reserved.

Winged Sumac berries: from Flickr Creative Commons, by Katja Schulz (treegrow). Some rights reserved.

Poison Sumac, summer colors: from Flickr Creative Commons, by Jennifer Jordan (lovingshiva). Some rights reserved.

Poison Sumac, autumn colors: from Flickr Creative Commons, by elizawbarrett. Some rights reserved.


With the recent announcement that Spotted Lanternfly has been confirmed in New Jersey, NJA is republishing a blog post from 2017 regarding how to properly identify the non-native and highly invasive Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima ) from native sumacs. Tree-of-Heaven has been identified as the host plant for the Spotted Lanternfly and can be removed and control by several eradication methods.

Original Blog Post 2017: Invasive plant species are an ever-present problem for land managers and conservationists. Properly managing invasive species is a task that many within the conservation world deal with on a regular basis. Being able to properly identify invasive species of plants is crucial so effective action can be taken to remove or manage the identified species.

Conversely it is also very important to be able to correctly identify beneficial native plants that may look very similar to an invasive plant species. Properly distinguishing “look-alikes” ensures that native plants are not mistakenly removed or chemically treated during management projects.

One of the best examples of such look-alikes is Ailanthus altissima (Tree-of-Heaven) and two native sumacs to the region, Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) and Rhus glabra (smooth sumac). At a quick glance Tree-of-Heaven and native sumac may seem indistinguishable, or at least confusing, but upon closer inspection there are several key characteristics to look for that will quickly distinguish the invasive Tree-of-Heaven from the native sumacs.

If you can reach the leaves or a stem of the tree and break off a leaf or small twig you will be able to decipher which plant you have encountered. Tree-of-Heaven has a very pungent aroma at a broken section of a twig or crushed leaf. Some describe it as rancid peanut butter or burnt rubber. Sumac on the other hand, does not have a very pungent odor and its leaves will have an average, mild vegetative scent.

Each plants’ leaves are also different, which can be observed on the leaflets (both species have compound leaves where there are numerous leaflets along one leaf stem). The leaflets of both sumacs are serrated or toothed while Tree-of-Heaven has almost entirely smooth leaflet edges (sumac on the left,Tree-of-Heaven on the right in the picture to the right). Also, Tree-of-Heaven leaflets contain one or more glands that can be found at the base of the leaflet. These glands are not present on sumac leaves.

One last distinguishing trait of each plant can be observed in late summer or early fall and that is the seed or fruit cluster. If the tree has finished flowering and produced fruit or seed, this is a great way to quickly identify the tree, even if at a distance. Sumacs have a panicle of flowers that produces a deep red cluster of fuzzy fruits which can easily persist into winter.

Tree-of-Heaven produces samaras that hang in clusters and turn a dull orange/brown color.

Using these characteristics (barring winter months when seeds and leaves may not be present) it can be very easy, even for an average property owner to distinguish Tree-of-Heaven from our native sumacs. Don’t rush to judgment though, look closely for the key characteristics.

Native sumac offers a great food source and habitat when found in natural areas and NJ Audubon encourages property owners to leave it if found. Tree-of-Heaven on the other hand should be removed using appropriate techniques, see for removal guidance.

Proper plant identification is one of the many skill sets NJ Audubon staff use to ensure that we are undertaking stewardship activities and managing habitat to produce the most positive ecological results.

Text and all photos except Ailanthus seeds by Ryan Hasko. Ailanthus seeds photo by Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, and TOH and SUMAC Comparison photo by Jenny Bull

The ‘Lemonade Tree’: It’s Time to Harvest Sumac

I was an 8-year-old city boy on a nature hike in the Catskills. After pointing out ripe blackberries and letting us all taste the sweet, juicy fruits, the leader of the tour pointed to a short, bushy tree with brilliant red cones on the tops of the branches. “That’s poison sumac!” she said. “Never touch it.”

Fast forward 20 years, and I am a young doctor in residency with an interest in wild foods and their possible health benefits. I read a newly popular book by Euell Gibbons called Stalking the Wild Asparagus. To my amazement he has a chapter on sumac with recipes for drinking teas made from those same red cones I was warned against many years before. I quickly un-learned my “false” lesson and explored this wild food: I’ve been enjoying it ever since.

The staghorn sumac, named for the velvety covering on its new branches, similar to the velvet on a stags new antlers, is a common and widespread species of edible sumac. It shares the Latin name rhus with hundreds of other species, several of which are “poisonous,” but not lethal. They can produce itchy rashes on contact, such as poison ivy, poison oak and even a species of sumac called poison sumac. It is impossible to mistake the edible sumac, such as the staghorn, with the poisonous one. The large, bright red cones of the edible sumac at the tips of the branches look nothing like the small clusters of white berries of the poisonous plant.

The sumac gives us a fruit, the big red cone, composed of individual drupes, similar to the little drupes that make up the knobbed appearance of common raspberries and blackberries. The plant also gives us a spice, derived from the seed inside each drupe which is dried and ground into a red powder that looks like paprika. This spice has been used for thousands of years, particularly in the Middle East and Near East, as well as North Africa. It makes an attractive topping on foods such as hummus, with a mild spicy flavor.

Native Americans of the Northeast, where sumac abounds, have used this fruit for millennia to make a tart drink and the white settlers quickly learned this technique too. The natives also used its narrow branches, with pithy centers, to fashion pipe stems after they removed the pith to hollow them out. And there are reports that they also mixed dried sumac leaves with tobacco and placed that in their pipes.

I enjoy the dark green color and shape of the sumac’s summer foliage, sometimes appearing tropical like palm trees, and other times like a tree in a prehistoric jungle awaiting megafauna to eat its fruit cone whole and wander off to propagate its seeds. In the fall sumac’s leaves turn a bright red. In leafless winter the staghorn sumac tree looks like large antlers reaching for the sky, making sumacs popular ornamentals.

Making Sumac Tea

Harvest the red cones in August when they are bright and full and before heavy rains that can wash out their color and flavor. Taste one drupe before picking to make sure that it is ripe, with a tangy, lemony flavor. A tablespoon or two of the drupes steeped in hot water, or left to sit in water outdoors on a sunny day, should yield one to two flavorful cups of “Indian lemonade.”

Be sure to filter the pink liquid through a tea strainer, cheesecloth or paper coffee filter before drinking to remove any fibers that naturally occur with the drupes. The cones store well in a paper shopping bag in a cool place for months and should yield good tea until springtime when mints can be harvested from the herb garden for a different tea.

Many herbal teas are considered diuretics, improving kidney function and ridding the body of toxins. Sumac tea falls into that category. In any event there are definitely micronutrients in sumac, vitamins and minerals, that are good for health. Plus there is the added healthful psychological boost of knowing that this local tree that provides a tasty, seasonal drink, as well as a spice, has been used by millions of people for thousands of years. And you gathered it from living nature in your backyard.

Be the first to know about invite-only happenings, delectable giveaways and when new issues hit the streets.

Sumac Tree Info: Learn About Common Sumac Varieties For Gardens

Sumac trees and shrubs are interesting throughout the year. The show begins with large clusters of flowers in spring, followed by attractive, brilliantly colored fall foliage. The bright red clusters of autumn berries often last into winter. Read on for sumac tree info and growing tips.

Sumac Tree Types

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (R. typhina) are the most common and readily available landscape species. Both grow 10 to 15 feet tall with a similar width and have bright red fall colors. You can differentiate the species by the fact that the branches of staghorn sumac have a furry texture. They make excellent wildlife shrubs because they provide shelter and food for birds and small mammals. Both species grow well in containers, where they stay much smaller.

Here are some additional sumac tree types to consider for your garden:

  • Prairie flameleaf sumac (R. lanceolata) is a Texas native that is only hardy to zone 6. It grows as a 30-foot tree. The fall color is red and orange. This species is very heat tolerant.
  • Tobacco sumac (R. virens) is an evergreen type with green leaves edged with pink. Grow it as a shrub or remove the lower limbs and grow it as a small tree. It reaches a height of 8 to 12 feet.
  • Evergreen sumac makes a nice, tight hedge or screen. Only the females make flowers and berries.
  • Fragrant sumac (R. aromatica) has green flowers that don’t show well against the foliage, but it more than makes up for this shortcoming with fragrant foliage, spectacular fall color, and ornamental fruit. This is a good plant for stabilizing embankments and naturalizing in areas where the soil is poor.

Growing Sumac in the Landscape

Increasing numbers of gardeners are growing sumac in the landscape for its striking fall color. Most species have leaves that turn bright red in fall, but there are also yellow and orange sumac varieties for gardens. If you are interested in a spectacular fall show, make sure you get a deciduous rather than an evergreen variety.

Sumac is a versatile plant that grows in almost any well-drained soil. Full sun or partial shade is fine for most varieties, but flameleaf or prairie sumac has better flowers and fall color if grown in full sun. The plants are drought tolerant, but grow taller if irrigated regularly in the absence of rain. The hardiness depends on the variety. Most are hardy to U.S. department plant hardiness zone 3.

Fun Fact: What is Sumac-ade?

You can make a refreshing beverage that resembles lemonade from the berries of smooth or staghorn sumac. Here are the instructions:

  • Gather about a dozen large clusters of berries.
  • Squeeze and mash them into a bowl containing about a gallon of cold water. Drop the mashed berries into the bowl along with the juice.
  • Let the mixture sit for five to ten minutes to pick up the flavor of the berries.
  • Strain the mixture through cheesecloth and into a pitcher. Add sweetener to taste.
  • Sumac-ade is best when served over ice.

Sumac tree growing shrub‎ or tree of the genus Rhus also known as Sumach, Sumac tree perennial deciduous or evergreen plant, used for the edible and fragrant fruits or as medical but mostly used as ornamental plant, can grow in temperate, subtropical, mediterranean climate and growing in hardiness zone 5-10.

Leaves color green in elliptic shape grow in pinnate structure.

Flower color can be: yellow, white, small flowers grow on stalk in clusters.

Sumac tree fruits

Fruit edible in red color, the size 2-3 cm

Sumac tree for sale – Seeds or Plants to Buy

Buy Now

Products from

Sumac treeSumac tree fruitsSumac tree fruits harvestingGrowing Sumac treeSumac tree care

How to grow Sumac tree growing and care:

Chill hours in the winter

What is the best way to start growing?
Plant / Seed

Is it necessary to graft or use vegetative reproduction?

Difficulties or problems when growing:
Invasive, shoots

Planting season:
Spring / Autumn

Pests and diseases:

Pruning season:

How to prune:
Just for design, easier to pickup

Size of the plant?
1-9 m, 3-28 feet

Growth speed in optimal condition:
Medium growing

Water requirement:
Average amount of water

Light conditions in optimal condition for growing:
Full Sun / Half Shade

Is it possible to grow as houseplant?

Growing is also possible in a planter /flowerpot / containers:

Blooming information

Bloom season:

General information about the flower
Yellow- white flowers , that grow on stalk in clusters

Pollination is done by:

Edible fruits& seeds

Fruit & seeds harvest season:
Summer / Autumn

Fruit & seeds pests or diseases:

What can be done with big quantities of Sumac tree fruits & seeds?
Spices, tea, medical

Work requirements on the fruit & seeds:
Nothing special

How long does it take to bear fruit & seeds?
2-4 years

Scientific name:

Rhus coriaria

Blooming Seasons

  • Spring flowers

Edible Parts

  • Edible Fruit
  • Edible Seeds

Culinary Uses

  • Beverage
  • Spices

Flower Colors

  • White flower
  • Yellow flower


  • Mediterranean Climate
  • Subtropics Climate
  • Temperate Climate

Harvest season

  • Autumn Harvest
  • Summer Harvest

Ornamental parts

  • Ornamental flower
  • Ornamental fruit
  • Ornamental leaves
  • Ornamental plant

Plant growing speed

  • Average growing plants

Plant life-form

  • Deciduous
  • Evergreen
  • Perennial plant
  • Shrub
  • Tree

Plant uses

  • Edible plants
  • Medical uses
  • Ornamental plants

Planting season

  • Autumn Planting
  • Spring Planting
  • Summer planting

Plants sun exposure

  • Full sun Plants
  • Part shade Plants

Watering plants

  • Regularly water

Hardiness zone

  • Hardiness zone 10
  • Hardiness zone 5
  • Hardiness zone 6
  • Hardiness zone 7
  • Hardiness zone 8
  • Hardiness zone 9

How to Plant Sumac Seeds

Sumac grows happily in the wild and therefore needs little attention once it is established in your yard. However, it is difficult to grow from seed. Sumac’s seed coat is very hard and untreated seeds can take years to germinate. To successfully propagate sumac from seed, you must treat it before planting. This will inevitably damage some of the seeds, so it is a good idea to collect many more than you think you will need.

Loosen the soil. Use a shovel to dig and turn the soil to a depth of 3 feet. One tree needs 9 square feet of loosened soil. Neighboring sumac should be planted at least 3 feet away. Remove any rocks, plant roots or debris that you find.

Soak the seeds in hot water. Place the sumac seeds in a cup. Pour enough water into a pot so that it measures roughly five times the volume of the seeds. Heat the water on the stove until it reaches 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour the heated water over the seeds. Allow it to completely cool before removing the now-swollen sumac seeds.

Plant your sumac seeds 1/2 inch beneath the soil in groups of four.

Water the soil so that it is moist to a depth of 2 inches. Continue to keep the soil moist until the sumac seeds germinate in 2 to 3 weeks.



Sumac shrubs provide intriguing visuals throughout most of the year, whether they’re growing along roadsides or planted as garden accents. Large flower clusters in spring are followed by brilliantly colored fall foliage in orange, flame red, and burgundy. The flower clusters produce berrylike drupes that turn red in autumn and last well into winter where they serve as tasty snacks for wildlife.

genus name
  • Rhus
  • Part Sun,
  • Sun
plant type
  • Shrub
  • 3 to 8 feet,
  • 8 to 20 feet
  • Up to 15 feet
flower color
  • Green,
  • White
foliage color
  • Blue/Green,
  • Chartreuse/Gold
season features
  • Summer Bloom,
  • Colorful Fall Foliage
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Attracts Birds,
  • Good for Containers
  • 2,
  • 3,
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9
  • Division,
  • Seed,
  • Stem Cuttings

Colorful Combinations

Because sumac comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it makes a great companion plant in the garden. Selections range from low-growing spreading types that work as underplantings for large low-maintenance areas to large plants that create garden focal points. Most varieties display fernlike compound leaves that turn the plants into softly textured landscape accents.

All sumac varieties bloom, although the smaller ones bear insignificant flowers. Larger varieties make up for the small bloom size by displaying big white clusters of petals loved by pollinators. After the flowers fade, they form clusters of brightly colored fuzzy red fruit called drupes. But the real show doesn’t begin until fall, when sumac’s foliage displays cover hillsides in glowing tones of orange, red, burgundy, and gold.

See more native plants with seasonal appeal here.

Sumac Care Must-Knows

Gardeners often choose sumac because it tolerates a wide range of soil types—as long as it’s not poorly drained. Saturated soil may lead to root rot.

Plant sumac in full sun. Some species tolerate part shade, but limited exposure to sunlight may lead to looser plant habits and muted coloring. Golden-leaf cultivars such as Tiger Eyes (a staghorn sumac) need some shelter from the afternoon sun to prevent leaf burn. If this plant grows in full sun, its brightly colored foliage may show evidence of bleaching.

Sumac spreads easily, typically forming a dense thicket of growth via underground rhizomes. Keep this characteristic in mind when deciding where to plant it, because larger species may be difficult to control. Smaller species are easier to control by digging. Some sumacs spread via seeds, so deadhead spent blossoms if self-seeding is a concern.

Try more of our top trees and shrubs with fall color in your landscaping.

More Varieties of Sumac

Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac

Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’ brings the fall garden to life with its outstanding fall foliage in shades of red, orange, and gold. During the rest of the growing season, its deeply dissected foliage gives this large shrub a fernlike appearance. Plants grow 10-12 feet tall and wide, sending up suckers from the roots to develop large colonies if left unchecked. Zones 3-8.

‘Prairie Flame’ Sumac

Rhus copallina latifolia ‘Prairie Flame’ is a dwarf selection of shining sumac introduced by Morton Arboretum. It grows just 5-7 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. Prairie Flame is a male clone, so it develops panicles of yellow-green flowers in summer but does not fruit. The glossy green leaves turn purple-red to orange in autumn. Zones 4-9.

Fragrant Sumac

Rhus aromatica is a species native to North America that forms a dense, low-growing colony ideal as a groundcover or low hedge. The shiny green foliage turns bright red-purple in autumn. It grows 5 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Zones 3-9.

‘Gro-Low’ Sumac

Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ makes for a great groundcover. It has shiny green foliage (that looks like poison ivy) and clusters of red berries in autumn and winter. It grows 2 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Zones 3-9.

Shining Sumac

Rhus copallina is also known as winged sumac because its glossy compound leaves have a wing along the central leaf vein. It can become a large shrub or small tree 10-20 feet tall and 10-12 feet wide. Like most other sumacs, it has excellent fall color and spreads by underground rhizomes, but it is less aggressive than smooth sumac. Zones 4-9.

Smooth Sumac

Rhus glabra is a North American native shrub that bears dark green foliage and clusters of fuzzy, rust-red fruits in fall. The leaves turn bright shades of red and orange in autumn. It grows 15 feet tall and wide. Zones 2-8.

Lemonade Berry

Rhus integrifolia is a Southern California native plant that is extremely drought-tolerant. It reaches up to 10 feet tall inland but may remain under 3 feet tall near the coast. The shrub spreads 10-15 feet wide. Clumps of pinkish-white flowers develop into reddish-pink fruits that can be steeped in water to make a lemonade-flavor beverage. Zones 9-10.

Staghorn Sumac

Rhus typhina colonizes to form a grove of small trees or large shrubs 15-25 feet tall and wide. It gets its common name from the appearance of bare winter branches. The forked shoots are covered with hairs, resembling deer antlers in the velvet stage. Female plants develop panicles of red fruits that persist through winter. Fall color is excellent. Zones 4-8.

‘Tiger Eyes’ Sumac

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ is an exceptionally showy selection of staghorn sumac that features chartreuse foliage all spring and summer. In autumn, the leaves turn brilliant orange. The leaves, stems, and berries are all fuzzy. It grows 8 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8.

Don’t Fear Sumac

Always champion of the underdog, the Grump comes to you today to defend the honor of a maligned and seldom appreciated plant — sumac.

Sumac gets a bad rap for two reasons. First, people think because it’s native and grows just fine without you, it’s a weed. Second, folks believe that contact with sumac foliage causes skin rashes just like poison ivy. It does not.

But you can’t blame them for assuming that. After all, until recently sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak were all classified under the same genus, Rhus. Then wiser minds prevailed and poison ivy and oak were moved to a different genus, Toxicodendron, which is Latin for “poison tree.” This latter genus ialso ncludes a sumac impostor that does cause rashes, poison sumac (T. vernix). I’ll reveal some easy ways to distinguish good sumac from poison sumac a little later.

Sumac Trademarks

With some exceptions, sumacs share a number of characteristics. They’ll grow on just about any well-drained soil, no matter how bad, and are very drought tolerant. They become multi-trunked large shrubs or small trees that spread by suckers to form thickets. Compound leaves up to 2 feet long consist of many pairs of lance-shaped leaflets. They offer some of nature’s finest fall colors, turning incandescent orange, scarlet, and crimson in early fall.

Clusters of greenish yellow flower appear in June and July. Upright or pendulous bunches of showy scarlet and crimson fruits ripen in fall. The fruits feed a wide range of wildlife and I’ve sampled a very nice tea made from the fruits of shining sumac (R. copallina). As I did not contract a nasty throat rash, this proves my point that true sumacs don’t so this.

Image zoom

Types to Try

Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is probably the most commonly used species in gardens. It gets its name from the fuzzy velvet that coats its branches, as well as its antler-like appearance in winter. Upright, pyramidal fruit clusters are the showiest of the sumacs. Staghorn can grow 30 feet tall or more, but if that’s too big for your garden, try a superior, cutleaf selection, ‘Laciniata,’ shown at the top. It grows only half that tall and features very handsome, dissected foliage.

‘Tiger Eyes’ (below) is another staghorn selection that’s getting a lot of press. It features golden, deeply cut leaves in summer that change to red and orange in fall. It grows to about 6 feet tall and spreads very slowly. It also grows very slowly — in fact, for me it’s just sat there for two years without doing much at all. I can’t believe it — a wimpy sumac.

Image zoom

Shining sumac (R. copallina), below, grows all around my neighborhood in Hoover, Alabama. It can grow up to 30 feet tall with a picturesque, flat-topped shape, but what I’ve seen mainly grows about 15 feet tall. It’s said to sucker aggressively, but it hasn’t in my garden. An easy way to tell it from other sumac species is by the winged stems of its glossy leaves.

Image zoom

How to Grow Sumac

It’s really easy. All it needs are:

1. Sun

2. Well-drained soil

You can propagate it by seed or dividing the roots. No problemo there.

Telling Good Sumac from Poison Sumac

1. Good sumac is common. Poison sumac is rare.

2. Good sumac likes dry soil. Poison sumac likes wet soil.

3. Good sumac may have fuzzy branches. Poison sumac never will.

4. Good sumac has red fruits. Poison sumac has white fruits.

5. Good sumac has green leaf stems. Poison sumac has bright red leaf stems.

Sumac Source

You may be able to find ‘Tiger Eyes’ or cutleaf sumac at your nursery, but don’t bet the farm on it. A good mail-order source for many different types of sumac is Forest Farm Nursery.

Common name: Sumac

About Sumac

Sumac is the common name for about 250 species in the genus Rhus. These woody shrubs are found in warm regions throughout the world. Several species are grown as ornamental shrubs in Europe and North America.


Most sumac have pinnately compound leaves. The flowers cluster in panicles or spikes and are usually cream-colored, greenish, or red. The fruit is red or reddish. Many sumac species are large shrubs or small trees, growing up to 30 feet tall, but cultivated species and varieties are usually smaller.

Smooth Sumac

Rhus glabra is an open-growing shrub that seldom reaches 15 feet tall. The leaves are alternate and compound; they can have 11 to 31 leaflets. The leaflets have serrated edges.

Fall foliage is bright red. The flowers are green panicles that produce crimson berries. The berries usually remain on the bush all winter.

Staghorn Sumac

Rhus typhina can grow up to 30 feet tall, although cultivars developed for use as ornamental shrubs are usually smaller. It has alternate, pinnately compound leaves made up of nine to 31 leaflets. The stems are covered with rust-colored hairs.

Fall foliage is a brilliant red. The fruit appears in the fall, in conical clusters of small red drupes.

Lemonade Berry

Rhus integrifolia is native to a relatively small area of southwestern California. The evergreen leaves are simple and have a leathery texture. The small white or pink flowers appear in clusters. The fruit is reddish in color, covered with hairs, and sticky.

Avoid Poison Sumac!

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix, formerly known as Rhus vernix) is a highly toxic shrub that grows to 10 feet tall. The leaves are pinnate with seven to 13 leaflets. The veins leading to the leaflets are always red. The fruit is a small gray or white berry produced in panicles (unlike the red berries of true sumacs). It grows in very wet or flooded soils such as peat bogs or swamps. Poison sumac is closely related to poison ivy {Toxicodendron radicans} and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). Japanese Lacquer Tree {Toxicodendron vernicifluum}is another closely-related species. These plants were once categorized as members of the genus Rhus but have been moved to the genus Toxicodendron. The name means “poisonous tree”.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom – Plantae
Division – Magnoliophyta
Class – Magnoliopsida
Order – Sapindales
Family – Anacardiaceae
Genus – Rhus
About 250 species


Sumac are tough shrubs! Most sumac tolerate poor soil and dry conditions easily. They need full sunlight for the best fall color. Cold hardiness varies by species.

Sumac grow readily from seeds, which are spread by birds and other animals. They also form new spouts from rhizomes, so they often establish colonies. Be careful where you place these shrubs; they can take over a whole section of the garden quite easily.


In many Middle Eastern countries, the hairy covering of the fruits found on sumac species native to those areas is harvested and used as a spice.Native Americans used Rhus integrifolia to make a beverage, sometimes called “Indian lemonade”. Other sumac species native to North America, such as the smooth sumac {Rhus glabra} and the staghorn sumac {Rhus typhina}, were also used for this purpose.

Native Americans also combined the leaves and berries of the smooth and staghorn sumacs with tobacco for traditional smoking mixtures.

The leaves of some sumac species contain tannin, a substance used in preparing leather. Leather tanned with sumac is very pale, almost white.

Varieties to Grow

Rhus aromatica ‘Grow Low’
Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ – yellow foliage
Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’
Rhus potaninii
Rhus glabra ‘Laciniata’

In July I took photos of sumacs along the Montour Trail but didn’t identify the species and assumed these first two were staghorn sumac. Wrong!

As I started to write this article I examined the photos and noticed a big difference between them. The red fruit spike above is fuzzy. The one below is smooth. Not only that, you can see that the stems on the top one are also fuzzy but the stems below are smooth.

In southwestern Pennsylvania we have three common sumac species that bear pointed red fruit clusters:

  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), at top, has fuzzy fruit and stems and is named “staghorn” because the fuzzy fruit spike resembles a stag’s horn in velvet.
  • Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), above, is smooth just like its name.
  • Shining sumac (Rhus copallina) is easily identified by its winged stems.

I haven’t seen Shining Sumac lately so here’s a photo from Wikimedia Commons. See how the stem has wings (like wingstem) between the leaflets?

There are two more plants we call “sumac” whose leaves resemble these plants but they aren’t in the genus Rhus:

  • Poison-sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is in the cashew family (as is Rhus) but it’s closely related to poison ivy and causes the same rash. Its stems are smooth, like smooth sumac, but its flowers and fruit are not in dense spikes. Fortunately poison sumac only grows in swamps and bogs so you’d have to go out of your way to touch it. Click here for a photo.
  • And finally there’s a plant we call “sumac” which isn’t related at all. Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is an invasive tree from China with compound leaves that resemble sumac. However its leaflets are notched, especially at the base, and the tree produces seeds instead of a fruit spike. Notice the notches on the leaflets and the heavy cascade of seeds in this Wikimedia photo. This is NOT sumac. It grows anywhere, even in abandoned parking lots.

Three real Rhus sumacs and two imposters.

(photos by Kate St. John except where noted. Click on the Wikimedia photos to see their originals)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *