Identifying poisonous plants is on any woodsman's mind or at top of the family camping list. To identify poisonous plants, we have heard for years “Leaves of three, let it be.” This is great advice for poison ivy and poison oak, but this advice will get you a bad rash from poison sumac. What does poison sumac look like, you ask? Let’s look at a few ways to identify and treat poison sumac.
Spring and Summer Leaves
The plant itself is considered a shrub, but many would call it a small tree. If you’re a botanist, you describe the leaves of poison sumac as pinnate. In layman’s terms that means it looks a little like a feather. The leaves have a stem that runs down the middle with leaves on either side of the stem. There is a single leaf at the end of the stem. In the spring and summer, the leaves are green.
The leaves in the fall are beautiful and can be yellow and pink, red and pink or red, pink and yellow. In late fall, the leaves can become a brilliant red color that is much like that of a red maple tree. In the fall, many well-meaning nature lovers often get too close to poison sumac and end up with a nasty rash.
The Poison Sumac Stem
We have mentioned that poison sumac leaves are beautiful in the spring, summer and fall. The problem is, there are many shrubs and small trees with beautiful leaves. Take special note of the red stem; the red stem is unique to the poisonous variety of sumac. Non-poisonous sumac does not have a red stem. The stem runs between the leaves that are on either side with a single leaf at the end. The stem is hard to identify later in the year as it turns to a gray/brown color, much like the shrub’s bark.
Spring and Summer Berries
Both the poison and non-poisonous varieties of sumac have berries, but poisonous berries are unique to poison sumac. They are an oddly shaped berry that grows in loose clusters, and each berry looks like it has been squashed. They are poisonous to the touch.
Much like poison ivy, the color of poison sumac’s berry turns an off-white color in the fall. You should beware of plants with white berries in the fall. Many outdoorsmen notice birds and animals eating the berries with no problem. The berries will still give humans a nasty rash.
Many have a hard time believing poison sumac gave them a rash when it has no leaves on the shrub. Even in the winter, poison sumac can give you a rash. Urushiol is the poisonous oil that poison sumac uses to defend itself. When you come in contact with any part of the plant, the urushiol oil is transferred to your skin. Your skin will absorb the oil, and your body will react to it 24 to 72 hours later as the rash starts.
The poison sumac rash looks like streaky patches of red blisters. The rash itself is not contagious but, if the urushiol oil is still on your clothes, dog or backpack, it can still give you a rash. Once you get the rash, you can have it for up to three weeks.
After the Rash
Once you know you have come in contact with poison sumac, you need to change clothes. Be careful removing your clothes and shoes, as they could still have the poison oil on them. Next, wash the exposed area with soap and warm water. If there is no water around, alcohol wipes will remove the urushiol oil. Try to keep the suspect area clean and dry.
Keep in mind that pets and garden tools may have oil on them as well. Your pet’s fur will typically prevent it from getting the rash, but if you come in contact with a pet that still has oil on its coat, it can cause a rash. It’s best to clean the tools and bathe your pet while wearing gloves.
Over-the-counter medicine will not remove or stop the rash, but it can make it more tolerable. Calamine lotion, hydrocortisone and Benadryl can help with the itch. Try not to scratch; it can cause an infection and even leave scars. If it gets too bad, an oatmeal or baking soda bath can help. Don’t be surprised if you have to try all of this for some relief.
It’s Time for the Doctor
It seems like one person can come in contact with poison sumac and walk away with a light rash that goes away in a day or two. Another person seems to be hyper-allergic to it and ends up with a severe rash. If you feel lightheaded and or are having trouble breathing after contact with poison sumac, call 911 right away.
If at any time you have severe reactions in addition to the rash like shortness of breath, upset stomach or fever; the rash site becomes extremely sensitive to the touch or your lymph nodes begin to swell, it’s time to head to the emergency room.
If you fight the rash with over-the-counter medicine and it seems like it is still spreading, it is a sign you are losing the fight. Once the rash is widespread or close to your eyes, it’s time to see the doctor.
Enjoy from a Distance
Both the poisonous and non-poisonous varieties of sumac are beautiful. Now that you know how irritating and downright dangerous poison sumac can be, it’s best to admire it from a long distance. If you accidentally get into it, you now know how to treat it and, hopefully, prevent it from becoming serious.