Aromatic Sumac

In just about all of the growing conditions at Roundrock, we can find aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica). Its distinctive shaped leaves, which turn a bright orange-red in the fall, and its bushy growing habit make it easy to pick out.

I took the above photo during my primitive phase (before I had a digital camera), and L was kind enuf to scan it for me. It’s not the best image I’ve ever put forth, but it does show off the leaves and berries well. And for us to see the berries is something of a rare occurrence. It seems that our resident deer love the pale yellow flowers that precede the berries, because nearly every sumac we come across in the forest has its tips browsed off. The deer make neat work of it, with a nice, clean snip of the branch. They must know where every aromatic sumac plant is in the forest, for we rarely see them in flower and even less often with fruit. I understand you can brew a tasty tea with these berries, but I may never have the chance to confirm that myself.

I was once walking the woods with a man and he saw a paper cup down in the base of an aromatic sumac bush. He is a neat and conscientious man, and he couldn’t abide the litter. “Why would someone throw trash into a clump of poison ivy?” he asked. I didn’t want to correct him at the time since his mild indignation seemed to be more important.

He very carefully snaked his arm down amidst the branches of the sumac and snatched the cup. Then he carefully extracted his arm, saying “I can catch poison ivy just by looking at the plant.”

Later that evening, as we were sitting in our tent, he showed me his arm, and sure enuf, it was red and inflamed. He reported that it itched terribly. I know that many people mis-identify aromatic sumac for poison ivy, but this was the first time I’d ever seen someone contract poison ivy from a sumac. I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

8 Responses to “Aromatic Sumac”

  1. thingfish23 Says:

    Pablo – does the sumac have an irritant in it, though? I’ve heard of poison sumac – is it the same plant?

  2. Administrator Says:

    Thing – different plant, though I’ve often wondered if some people are simply more sensitive to plant oils or whatever. I’ve heard lots of tales of people contracting a rash from Virginia creeper, convinced it was poison ivy growing on the chimney, and aside from psychosomatic reactions, I do wonder if they just might have extra sensitive skin.

  3. Wayne Says:

    Very interesting plant, much different from our sumacs – Rhus spp. It looks more like a holly!

    Sumac is in the same family as poison ivy, Anacardiaceae, and apparently has some of the same irritants, the oil urushiol. Mangos and cashews are also in that family, and some people are allergic to them too.

    Virginia creeper though is not related to the Anacardiaceae plants. I’ve noticed that a lot of people do mistake it for poison ivy though, to the extent of screaming at me when I touch it.

  4. Wayne Says:

    Here’s one pic of Rhus aromatica. The very tight clustering of the berries looks more like what I’m familiar with in Rhus although our shining sumacs and others don’t have red berries. Your berries are very loose, without the crystalline exudates that are typical of sumac fruits and add to the tea flavor. I’m puzzled, because your leaves are similar but admit these are weak grounds to challenge the identification. But one reason I’m mentioning it is that tea made from holly lookalikes could be a bad thing.

    Just an aside here, but I’ve heard people also say that they’re not allergic to poison ivy; that they “played in it when they were kids and never got it.” I’m very skeptical. My guess, and your story is also suggestive, is that there’s a lotsa people don’t really know what poison ivy looks like, and imagine, as they do with all snakes that they see as copperheads, water mocassins, and so forth, that many innocent plants are poison ivy.

  5. dread pirate roberts Says:

    the mind/body connection seems to be a two-way street. i do recall a treatment for poison oak sensitivity that entailed drinking a glass of water each day with two drops of poison oak extract in it. i passed on that, tho i did seem to suffer less if i got a small irritation early each spring. i always treated the plant with respect, avoiding contact.

  6. FloridaCracker Says:

    Pretty plant. I would imagine birds help to spread it around. Very different from the red sumac in my yard.
    Just to add to the poison ivey tales…I finally got nailed by it last year after thinking I was a little immune. This one incident made up for all the times I missed getting “rashed”.

  7. Randy Tindall Says:

    I wonder if you would mind if I used the sumac/poison ivy anecdote in my own blog, with a link back to yours. This is a great little story. I’m getting ready to post an article about aromatic sumac in our backyard. Please let me know if it’s a problem. Thanks! Randy

  8. Roundrock Journal » Blog Archive » Aromatic Sumac – Revisited Says:

    […] is a risky post. The first time I posted about the aromatic sumac that is so common at Roundrock, one authority suggested that I […]

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