The poison sumac plant is a single species in the toxicodendron genus, which is a member of the anacardiaceae family. The poison sumac, which may be either a small tree or shrub, is considered relatively rare in comparison to other pernicious plants – such as ivy or oak – and can be seen blossoming almost exclusively in the wetlands of North America. These woody perennials are rather small, growing an average of 5 to 6 feet in height – though they sometimes grow as tall as 25 feet. Their foliage is generally smooth, their stems red, and their leaves may be ovate, undulate, wedge-shaped, oblong or tapering. Poison sumacs also bear small, inconspicuous clusters of yellow-green flowers, which eventually develop into drooping, dusty white berries.
The poison sumac plant is thought to be one of the most poisonous plants the United States. Every part of these small shrubs – save for the pollen – contain an oily sap called urushiol, a toxic allergen that can cause urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. This form of dermatitis is relatively long-lasting, and appears in the form of red, swollen eruptions and skin streaking; if the poison sumac is burnt, it may also cause a severe reaction in the lungs. Many people confuse the poisonous variety with its non-harmful cousins, such as staghorn or fragrant sumac; fortunately, there are several characteristics that can help in separating the toxic from the harmless. For instance, the berries of the poison sumac plant are low-hanging and a greyish white in hue, while the non-toxic varieties are bright red, and grow in an upright manner; harmless plants prefer dry air and well-drained soil, while the poisonous plants are commonly seen growing in peat bogs and swamps. Over time, a good deal of fiction and folklore has sprung up about this itchy little shrub. Some of the best stories state that a person might develop a rash by simply seeing the plant, being around it, or coming into contact with someone who already has a poison sumac rash; others state that you can become infected, and that the poison can lay dormant under the skin, only to pop up during the warmer months. Thankfully, these tales are simply myths; you can only develop a reaction if you come directly into contact with the poison sumac plant.
Poison sumacs are not particularly known for their symbolism; however, it is easy to identify them with discomfort, or even distrust. Although these plants are quite lovely in appearance, they make for very unsuitable gifts.