Poison Sumac: Our Wetland Beauty with a Dark Secret

THE WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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Erika Cole Pratt of Ann Arbor Parks admires a beautiful poison sumac tree in a Rose Township wetland.

Swamp walkers and wetland trail hikers need to keep a sharp lookout for one of the most beautiful plants of our wetlands: Toxicodendron vernix, better known as poison sumac. This scraggly, shrub-like small tree thrives in the swamps, bogs, marshes and other wetlands of Oakland County. It is one of the first plants to dress in spectacular autumn colors that can best be described as flaming orange with a dark red hue. Poison sumac, as alluring and beautiful as it may be, presents a far more prevalent hazard to hikers than an encounter with Michigan’s only venomous snake, the massasauga rattlesnake. In these early days of September, poison sumac stands out drastically among the trailside – let the color and leaf pattern be a warning of its clear and present danger.

Birds flock to a colorful row of poison sumac and then feast on the seeds.

Birds flock to a colorful row of poison sumac and then feast on the seeds.

The brilliant early color change of the plant is an example of what botanists refer to as “fall foliar fruit flagging”. This tongue-twister of a botanical term means that many species of birds are drawn to the color and then feast on the seeds. The seeds are then dispersed through the bird droppings, giving the poison sumac a new wetland home.

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A solitary poison sumac plant adds a splash of color to a wetland at Rose Oaks County Park.

Poison sumac has the same toxic substance as poison ivy, an oily substance known as urushiol. Direct contact with the plant can lead to a long-lasting rash with a painful itch that may require medical attention. Fires in wetlands present another hazard; the wafting smoke can carry tiny droplets of the oil, which remains potent on contact with human skin, or if inhaled.

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The upright fuzzy seed clusters of staghorn (also known as red sumac) bears no resemblance to the tiny greenish-white fruits (drupes) of poison sumac.

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Staghorn sumac leaves also turn red in autumn but have saw tooth like edges and are long and narrow.

NOTE:  Staghorn or red sumac (Rhus typhina), is similar in looks to poison sumac, and is commonly found in dry uplands of Oakland County; it has clusters of reddish fuzzy seeds, and presents NO hazard to humans. Red sumac leaves are also noticeably different – as seen in these photos.  The photos show the differences, but habitat awareness is the key to avoiding poison sumac, the plant Henry David Thoreau referred to as “Beautiful as Satan”.

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Habitat is often the quickest key to identification. Poison sumac thrives in wetlands and is often found near Tamarack trees.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks Nature Education Writer. www.DestinationOakland.com | schechterj@oakgov.com

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