“Leaves Of Three, Let Them Be”, right?… Not Necessarily!

I have a yard that backs up to woods. While I’ve been trying to landscape in the yard, the back of it has a steep hill and, well, I haven’t really gotten to that yet. Needless to say, I find all kinds of things growing that I didn’t plant there. Some of them are pleasant surprises, like the Joe-pye weed, wild asters, black-eyed Susans and daisies. Others, on the other hand, are not so pleasant.

A couple of years ago, I found a plant growing in the yard… and it was EVERYWHERE! I freaked out because the leaves were in sets of three. The only plant that I knew of that fit that description was poison ivy!

“Just grab a bottle of Roundup,” people told me. “That’ll take care of it!”

There is one major problem with that solution. Part of gardening for wildlife means eliminating harmful chemicals in the yard. I could manually pull some of it if I was careful, but a whole yard of it?

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

I was trying to figure out my strategy for dealing with the problem and do it in a way that was the least harmful to wildlife and…well…me, when I noticed something. Growing on the plant were red berries. Wait! Doesn’t poison ivy have white berries?

Now I was really confused. I decided to ask some of my gardening friends at work. Sure enough, one of my coworkers knew what I was talking about.

“That’s not poison ivy,” she said. “I think that’s fragrant sumac.”

We looked it up on the internet to verify it with some photos. Yep! That’s my plant! I would have never guessed that it was anything other than poison ivy. All those plants that I saw right off of the trail at the local conservation center that I thought were poison ivy were, in fact, fragrant sumac as well. And, I’ve since learned, that it’s even sold at native plant sales!

The following descriptions are taken from Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri by Don Kurz put out by the Missouri Department of Conservation to help you differentiate the two:

Fragrant Sumac
fragrant sumac
Poison Ivy
poison ivy
Appearance: Thicket-forming shrub to 8 feet, branches vary from ascending to lying on the ground. Poisonous, a vine to 60 feet high, trailing or climbing by aerial roots; or a low, upright shrub.
Flowers: Late March-April, flowers usually appearing before leaves at the ends of twigs in clusters, flowers small, yellowish-green. May-June, in clusters on new growth of stems, flowers small, greenish-white, fragrant.
Fruit: May-July, globe-shaped, red, hairy with simple or gland-tipped hairs. August-November, in grapelike clusters, creamy-white, waxy, globe-shaped, smooth or rarely sparsely hairy.
Leaves: Alternate, three-leaved, fragrant when crushed, leaflets without stalks, short stalked, egg-shaped, tip pointed to rounded, margin lobed or coarsely toothed; upper surface dark yellow-green, dull or shiny, with or without hairs; lower surface pale, smooth to densely hairy; leaf stalk about 1 inch long. Alternate, three leaflets, variable in shape and size; end leaflet stalk 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches long; side leaflets with unequal sides; blades mostly oval to lance-shaped, tip pointed (end leaflet with a more pronounced pointed tip), margin entire, largely toothed, or lobed; upper surface dull green, smooth; lower surface paler, with varying degrees of hairiness; leaf stalk 2 1/2 to 6 inches long, hairy.
Stems: Slender, flexible, brown, hairy to smooth later. Light brown, hairy, pores raised, climbing by aerial rootlets. Stems trail until finding support or when lacking support often assuming an erect shrublike posture, often with single stems.
Remarks: Although superficially resembling the related poison ivy, fragrant sumac does not cause dermatitis. It is readily distinguished by a shorter or absent stalk on the middle leaflet and by its hairy, reddish fruits. An oil found in all parts of the plant is poisonous and produces an intense skin irritation. Upon contact with the skin this oil produces blisters, accompanied by intense itching and burning. Washing immediately after contact with cold, soapy water is the best treatment.

Both plants are an important food source for wildlife, although I don’t recommend having poison ivy in your yard. All the photos above were taken in my yard. The fragrant sumac I will let grow if it’s in a suitable place. The poison ivy I will have to remove. I try to get to it when it’s small and will use gloves over a plastic bag to remove it. I will then wash up immediately after removing the plant.

I hope this helps you at least get a better idea of what poison ivy looks like versus fragrant sumac. If in doubt, though, always treat it with caution. Happy Gardening! šŸ™‚


8 thoughts on ““Leaves Of Three, Let Them Be”, right?… Not Necessarily!

    • Unfortunately, the birds like to spread it around! And since I’m basically gardening for them, I’m going to have to expect it! šŸ˜› The weeds are just going nuts this year. I’m not able to keep up.


  1. This plant does indeed cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals. I’m told some people are more sensitive to it than to poison ivy! I was a little skeptical but recently brushed up against one in my yard, just barely, and decided to test myself. Mistake! Worst outbreak of dermatitis I’ve had in years. If you look around the internet you can find claims that it’s not a problem, but also some places confirming it’s potential for dermatitis. Same for smoke tree, Cotinus – they are in the same family.


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