In Praise of Sumac

 

Staghorn sumac fall color with paper birch and balsam fir

“Junk trees” to some. “Weeds” to others. “An amazingly versatile gift from Nature…filling up space outdoors for free” to me. This is the genus Rhus (Sumac). In the Northeast staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) or one of its relatives will be among the first trees in the seed bank to sprout and reach for light, or spread from a remnant stand, after mowing is abandoned in a field or lawn. Late to leaf out, they are the earliest and probably the most vibrantly red fall color.

Native sumacs are all cloning species, and if left to grow, form the characteristic soft rounded mounds of that growth habit…mother stems the tallest in the center, and younger stems subsequently shorter and shorter toward the edges.

Staghorn sumac “pillows”

 

The cloning habit is a blessing where you need the species to do its thing, and a nuisance where you don’t. It also makes the plant very hard to dig (with owner’s permission), because most stems in any one clone will have roots that look like a T, connected to one older and one younger stem and without feeder roots, each member supported by the vitality of others. It may also be the reason this genus is difficult to find in nurseries. This may change, because Rhus cultivars (called “upgrades” in the article) have just been featured in the August issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. And for a pioneer species that can thrive in poor and excessively well drained soil, I rarely see a successful stand where it has been specified to be planted en masse, such as a highway right-of-way. In other words, if you have it on a site and want to keep it, favor what is there and let it expand, rather than count on replanting.

The sumac fort: Sign says “Private. No girls allowed”

Sumac is especially welcome in children’s play gardens or schoolyard habitats, as it grows fast, and even as a young plant can seem like a forest to a pre-schooler. So the effect of woodland is achieved, and the custodian, who usually worries about taller trees and their leaves in the gutters, need not be concerned. A sumac stand is very resilient and can take the inevitable trampling, but one innovative pre-school director simply laid strips of old carpet along paths over a low earth mound populated by volunteer sumac.

We have encountered the common misconception about all sumac species, however, when a PTO member expressed the concern “But it’s poisonous!” Understandable mistake, but not true in most situations. There are some toxic Rhus species, now named Toxicodendron, but the two tree/shrub forms are in swamp habitats – T. vernix (Poison sumac) and T. toxicodendron (Poison oak). On the other hand, poison ivy (T. radicans) is frequently a problem, but is easy to identify.

Respite in a sumac grove – Berlin Botanic Garden

Most of the Rhus species that volunteer in Massachusetts are native to every county, with northerly and southerly ranges overlapping. Rhus typhina (Staghorn sumac) is the taller tree-form and ranges throughout zone 3a in the northeast quadrant of the US and southeastern Canada. Its dominance is replaced by the thickety tall shrub, R. copallinum (Flameleaf, Shining, or Winged sumac), in zone 5a south of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The slightly smaller tree-form, R. glabra (Smooth sumac), has the widest distribution of all, pretty much the entire easterly half of the US in zones 2 through 8.

All of these sumacs share the characteristic compound leaf and upright terminal cluster of flowers and fruit. Smooth and staghorn sumac are dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants – or perhaps easier to remember, “in two houses”).

Shiny leaves and winged petioles of Rhus copallinum (photo credit: Duke University fact sheet)

 

 

 

Shining sumac is monoecious and has glossy leaflets on a winged leaf stem.

 

 

 

 

Rhus aromatica cascades over a retaining wall in Evanston, IL

 

 

 

Rhus aromatica (Fragrant sumac) is a shrub in that special design niche of three-foot-tall woody plant and is common to circumneutral soils in eastern mountains plus south-central US (zone 4a). Its recumbent branches grow long and then curve up at the ends…it is beautiful as a low hedge at the top of a retaining wall, where the branches can hang down.

 

 

 

Three leaflets of Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’

 

It is most commonly dioecious, and its three leaflets more resemble poison ivy than its tree-sumac cousins. The leaflets, when crushed, have a pleasant smell.

Be careful – this one is often mislabeled in a nursery, when it is actually R. trilobata, aptly named ill-scented sumac or skunkbush, which grows stiffly upright to six feet from the get-go and unpleasant-smelling leaves when crushed. This is one case when I would specify the cultivar R. aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ to assure the desired species and low height.

 

References:

Britton, N.L. and A. Brown. (1970) An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, Vol. II. Dover Publications, Inc., NY.

Hightshoe, Gary L. (1988) Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: A planting design manual for environmental designers. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, Inc., NY.

Sorrie, Bruce and Paul Somers (2000) The Vascular Plants of Massachusetts: A County Checklist, MA Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (but out of print).

© 2011 – 2012, Ruth Parnall. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. Carole says

    I enjoy the winged, or shining sumac in my yard. Right now it is blooming and some are setting fruit. When the fruit is very ripe it has the taste of lemonade, but I leave it for the wildlife.

  2. says

    Ruth – Way to go! Great plant to honor. I am always amazed by the color of our native sumac (smooth and staghorn here in lower CT). The smooth has – I kid you not – powdery lavender leaf stems, kelly-green leaves, and lemon yellow flowers, followed by red foliage and red fruit.

    The easy way to tell young smooth or staghorn sumac from the invasive ailanthus (tree of heaven): the sumac leaves are serrated; the ailanthus are smooth-edged, sometimes lobbed.

    Have you tried a root barrier (e.g. an 8″ strip of plastic sunk in the ground) to control spread of the suckers?

    • Ruth says

      Never tried the root barrier – has anyone else? Sassafras has the same tendencies to pop in more abundance than one wants.

  3. says

    Ruth, great article. I didn’t realize that about the root system and I’m glad you passsed on that info so I’m not trying to dig them up for others.

    As I let parts of my lot naturalize, the sumacs are always there to greet me. I love the massive numbers of Red-banded Hairstreaks that grace my garden since Winged Sumac (R. copallinum) is the larval host for them here in Florida….the caterpillars eat the leaf litter. Carole, I too heard the fruit can be used to make lemonade, but that I haven’t tried. I did however use the berries as dye to show the versatility of native plants at an outreach program I helped with at our annual pioneer day. The color was a light gold and surprised me, given the redness of the berries. And, I so enjoy watching the mockingbirds swaying sideways on the branches as they come to eat and enjoy. Sumac has a promident place in my wildlife garden!
    Loret recently posted..Tribute to a Great Friend

    • Ruth says

      Late in winter, when one would think the fruits all dried up, we have flocks of robins foraging on staghorn sumacs and on the snow beneath them.

  4. says

    Love this native plant! It’s fabulous for attracting wildlife, and definitely has the best red fall color (equal to our native sourgum, Nyssa sylvatica). I also find the stout stems to be very architectural in winter, it looks especially great in a ‘driveway island’ where the suckers are easily controlled.
    Shane Morgan recently posted..Ode to Coastal Plants

  5. says

    Thanks so much for highlighting these wonderful plants. When we bought our house in 2007, a steep slope in our front yard adjacent to the sidewalk was covered with (non-native and invasive) cotoneaster. Last summer I ripped it out and replaced it with Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ and I couldn’t be more thrilled with my decision: it really is beautiful AND functional.
    Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Olmsted-approved Native Shrubs

    • Ruth says

      I’d be interested to know if you put anything on the soil (like mulch or weed barrier) under the branches of the R. aromatica, to keep other species from seeding and growing in-between.

  6. says

    I was very sad to have to take out a volunteer winged sumac that had taken over a tiny little bed between walkway and house—not a spot that could hold a shrubby thicket!—and now I know why I couldn’t get it to re-root elsewhere! Fortunately other volunteers have come up in better areas. It’s a marvelous plant.

    Shooting Star Nursery in Kentucky has mail-order Sumac of various species, but I haven’t tried any of them yet.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Io Moth Caterpillar

  7. Bruno Rudaitis says

    Does anyone know where I can purchase a “September glory” sumac tree which flowers late September. It has large white flowers which are quite spectacular. Forest farm had them at one time, but we haven’t seen it in their latest catalog.

  8. Dorothy Frohn says

    I don’t have sumac now. I did try to transplant one; you can guess the result. When I was a child, we used dead sumac for kindling to start a fire. It makes pretty picture frames. I’ve always meant to try making lemonade from it.

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