How to get rid of poison oak

Dawn Combs

My father recently asked me whether I plan to use the land where he and my mother live for business at some point. My husband and I already keep some bees with them, and because their land is so different than ours—we have wide-open farm land while theirs is thoroughly wooded—we’ve considered using their space for some plants we want to use in our farm products.

I knew my dad asked the question from more than passing curiosity. Mom and dad haven’t lived on their land very long, and as dad is working to create green spaces and manage the trees, he has become increasingly frustrated with one particular plant that is fighting back: poison ivy.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) has taken over most of the wooded space. (See also: 4 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Poison Ivy.) He has been sorely tempted to use glyphosate to kill off the plant but knew that if I wanted to use the land, it would be a big problem for me because we grow without chemicals. He challenged me to find a replacement or he would have to resort to the chemical solution. Of course, he reasons, that he could use it and then make the land available three years from now when organic standards would deem it safe to use again, but I would disagree. Glyphosate damages soil bacteria, and we can’t stop there and not discuss the debated health ramifications.

Why further damage the soil with a chemical when it’s imbalanced enough to allow poison ivy to take over in the first place? Those that choose the chemical route are chasing a symptom rather than solving the problem. In addition, many report that using glyphosate on this particular weed slows it down but doesn’t kill it off completely.

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Here are some alternate ways to get poison ivy under control without damaging the soil in the process:

How to Identify Poison Sumac

Poison sumac is a small tree that grows to about 30 feet tall (that’s about three times as tall as your average Christmas tree). It has pinnate leaves, like a fern’s leaf or a feather. Each pinnate leaf has 9 to 13 leaflets on it, which are stationed opposite each other.

The leaves are shaped like pointy, tapered ovals and may have peachlike fuzz on the underside. The stems of the leaf are reddish, but the bark of the rest of the plant is greyish.

Poison sumac has berry-like fruits that grow in loose clusters. They are white and each is 4-5 millimeters across.

Poison sumac has many lookalikes that are also in the sumac family. Let’s break down the lookalikes and how to tell which sumac you’re looking at:

  • Staghorn sumac has similar leaf arrangement to poison sumac but it has fuzzy fruit and stems. The fruits are generally red.
  • Smooth sumac has smooth stems, like poison sumac. However, its berries grow in dense clustered spikes rather than the looser arrangement found in poison sumac.
  • Shining sumac is easily identified by its grooved stems between the leaflets. This stem configuration is quite distinctive once you notice it – it looks like it has been given grooves. Poison sumac has smooth, round stems.
  • Tree of Heaven (not a sumac at all) has leaves with notches around the base, while poison sumac has smooth leaves. Tree of Heaven also does not produce berry clusters like the sumacs.

If you’re confused, it’s generally easy to identify poison sumac by its habitat as well.

poison sumac

Where Does Poison Sumac Grow?

Poison sumac is mostly found in wet, swampy areas with clay-like soil. That’s a good thing, because that means most of us won’t run into it along our day-to-day adventures (unlike pernicious poison ivy, which grows just about anywhere).

Poison sumac is mostly found along the coasts of North America, with big patches just south of Tennessee and in the states surrounding Massachusetts. It is occasionally found in the farthest southeast portions of Canada.

poison sumac range

Image courtesy of USGS.

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How Can I Get Rid of Poison Sumac?

If poison sumac is growing on your property and you want to remove it, you’re in for a chore. Since poison sumac is more dangerous than poison ivy or poison oak (and it’s a decent-sized tree), it’s generally best to hire a professional.

Any attempts at removing poison sumac are risky because you are likely to expose yourself to the urushiol. As stated above, burning poison sumac is a bad idea. It’s possible that breathing the smoke from burned poison sumac is fatal, though we couldn’t find any reports of actual deaths.

If you do decide to remove poison sumac on your own (which, again, we don’t recommend), it’s a lengthy process:

  1. Make sure you’ve identified the target. Then plan your removal for a dry, windless day.
  2. Gear up. You’ll want eye protection, a mask, and long clothing or rubber gloves and boots over every inch of skin.
  3. Cut the plant at ground level using shears or a saw.
  4. Treat the remaining base using a chemical herbicide such as Roundup. We don’t always love using these big-boy chemicals, but this plant is no joke. This is not the time to play nice with nature!
    • If your infestation is small, you might want to dig up the roots. However, this can be tricky with an adult plant.
  5. Dispose of the plant properly. You should not burn poison sumac or put it in the compost. Instead, put it in black plastic trash bags and then check with your municipality to see if they allow it in the dump.
  6. Disinfect your clothing and tools. Rinse tools with rubbing alcohol, then oil the joints after they’ve dried. Wash your gloves before removing your clothing, then use the gloves to take off all of your clothing. Wash all of this immediately, then wash your gloves again. Take a shower afterward.

You’ll likely need to repeat this process several times to eradicate the plants. It’s generally easier to leave poison sumac alone if it’s in a remote part of your property — removal is quite difficult!

poison sumac drawing

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