Why was poison sumac named after the sumac family? Does it look like sumac to you? It doesn’t to me, and perhaps like you, I grew up with my dad combating sumac in the woodsy fringes around our yard and field, but poison sumac? I never knew what it looked like till a tree cutter told us we had poison sumac in our small woodsy area beneath our house.
That’s when I found out that poison sumac’s cousin is poison ivy and it isn’t even a distant relation to the sumacs that decorate our woody area in the fall. Instead, poison sumac has a cluster of berries that look a lot like poison ivy berries and their leaves don’t look like sumac leaves either.
Poison sumac loves wet areas – swampy or boggy areas – and causes the same kind of rashes that its more numerous cousin, poison ivy, does. It has the same kind of oil causing an itchy rash as poison ivy. The tree cutter was wrong – our woody area’s far from wet; it only has a few inches of top soil on bedrock – no wet areas there. And our sumacs? Stag horn and smooth sumac.
The other relative in this family of rash giving, nasty wild plants, is poison oak, and luckily Maine seems a little too far north for this member of the family to grow as well as its more numerous cousins.
You might encounter it in Southern Maine, though, since with the warming climate, plants are naturalizing northward at about seven miles a decade.
We’re fortunate here not to have many plants that can cause a lot of misery for some people. Of course we do have plants that are poisonous – that you shouldn’t eat – but few I know nibble wild plants. That’s a topic for another day.