Poison Sumac vs Staghorn Sumac: Know the Difference

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By Ben

Sumac is a plant that can be found throughout North America and is known for its vibrant red berries. There are many different types of sumac, but two of the most well-known are poison sumac and staghorn sumac. While these plants may look similar, they have several important differences. Poison sumac is a wetland species that can cause severe allergic reactions if touched, while staghorn sumac is harmless and often used in cooking. It is important to be able to distinguish between the two in order to avoid any potential harm.

Know the difference

In short, this table summarize the differences:

Criteria Poison Sumac Staghorn Sumac
Toxicity All parts of the plant are toxic and can cause severe skin rash and internal irritation Non-toxic, but some people may experience allergic reactions on contact
Berries Clusters of white or light-green berries that sag downward on its branches Red berries that sit upright
Leaflets Clusters of leaflets with smooth edges Leaves with jagged edges
Habitat Grows in wetlands and swampy areas Grows in open fields, roadsides, and dry areas
Importance Considered a nuisance and dangerous plant Used in medicinal and culinary applications


One of the easiest ways to tell poison sumac and staghorn sumac apart is by their appearance. Poison sumac has clusters of white or light-green berries that sag downward on its branches. In contrast, staghorn sumac has bright red berries that sit upright on the branches. Additionally, the leaves of poison sumac are smooth and shiny, arranged in pairs, and have smooth edges. The leaves of staghorn sumac, on the other hand, are serrated and arranged in a feather-like pattern.


The most important difference between these two plants is their toxicity. As its name suggests, poison sumac is highly toxic and can cause a severe rash similar to poison ivy if touched or burned. All parts of the plant, including the berries, stems, bark, and roots, contain a toxic oil called urushiol that can cause skin irritation and blistering.

Staghorn sumac, on the other hand, is not poisonous to humans. While some people may have an allergic reaction to staghorn sumac if they come into contact with it, this reaction is typically mild and can be treated with washing the affected area thoroughly with soap and water. However, it’s still important to exercise caution when handling staghorn sumac, as some parts of the plant can be toxic in large quantities or when prepared incorrectly.


Despite its toxicity, poison sumac does have some medicinal uses. It has been used to treat various ailments such as arthritis and sore throats, although these uses are not widely accepted or recommended by healthcare professionals.

Staghorn sumac, on the other hand, has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. The fruit of the plant is high in vitamin C and can be used to make a tart, lemonade-like drink. It has also been used in traditional medicine to treat various conditions such as diarrhea and sore throats.


In conclusion, it is important to know the difference between poison sumac and staghorn sumac in order to avoid any potential harm. While poison sumac is highly toxic and can cause a severe rash, staghorn sumac is safe for human consumption and has various culinary and medicinal uses. Always exercise caution when handling any plant and consult a healthcare professional before using any plant for medicinal purposes.


Is staghorn sumac the same as poison sumac?

Staghorn sumac is not the same as poison sumac. While staghorn and smooth sumac species that grow along roads and fields are harmless to touch, poison sumac is a wetland species that can cause severe irritation if touched. Poison sumac never grows in dry upland areas, where staghorn and smooth sumac are usually found.

How can you tell the difference between sumac and poison sumac?

Sumac and poison sumac are two different plants that can be easily distinguished by their appearance. One way to tell the difference between the two is to look at the berries. Poison sumac has clusters of white or light-green berries that droop downward on its branches, while the red berries of harmless sumac grow upright. This is the most noticeable difference between the two plants.

Is poison sumac always poisonous?

Poison sumac is always poisonous as it contains urushiol oil, which can cause an allergic skin reaction known as contact dermatitis. This oil is released when the plant is damaged or bruised, and it can remain active even after the plant dies. Therefore, all parts of a poison sumac plant, including the leaves, stems, roots, and berries, are toxic and can cause skin irritation and rashes. It’s important to avoid any contact with the plant, and to wear protective clothing when in areas where poison sumac may grow.

Can you touch poison sumac?

Touching poison sumac can cause an allergic reaction known as contact dermatitis. The rash is not contagious and can’t be spread from person to person by touching the blisters or fluid inside them. However, the oil from the plant’s leaves, stems, and roots can remain on skin, clothes, or shoes and spread to another person or surface, potentially causing a rash. It’s important to wash any exposed skin and clothing immediately after contact with poison sumac to prevent the spread of the urushiol oil.

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