Winged Sumac…Full of Wings

It won’t be long before the flowers give way to lush drupes of red fruits

I heard a loud drone while walking out back. I glanced over to an area I have let restore that consists of a patch of Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum). There, covering the creamy white blossoms was a gang of pollinators of many shapes and sizes. There were solitary bees, honeybees, flies, ants and many Thread-waisted Wasps (Sphex spp.).

the sumacs were covered with pollinators

Winged Sumac gathers its common name from the protrusions along the leaf stems that resemble wings. Winged Sumac holds a place in my heart since it offers a bit of autumn coloring that I miss from my Northeast U.S. roots. The green leaves turn vibrant shades of red, gold and orange as the season changes.

You can see the wing-like protrusions on the leaf stems which give this Rhus species its common name

This deciduous shrub is propagated by seed or by root cuttings. Only the female plants produce berries that are eaten by grouse, wild turkey, and songbirds. Rabbits eat the bark and twigs, especially during the winter months. The twigs are also browsed extensively by white-tailed deer during the winter months when other more desirable browse is scarce. This plant is listed as having special value to native bees, special value to honeybees, and is a major player in supporting conservation biological control, which is evident by just how many of the Thread-Waisted Wasps were gathered in my garden. These wasps are parasites of crickets and katydids.

This horsefly (Chlorotabanus crepuscularis) was busy. Its larvae is predaceous, but be careful…the females are blood suckers.

Winged Sumac has a history of ethnobotanical uses one of which is to treat dysentery. Native Americans also used the fruits as a dye. When I experimented and made a dye from the berries, the cloth came out came out a light shade of gold, which seemed contrary to the redness of the fruits. Nevertheless, the color was stunning.  The fruits can be processed into jelly and also be used as a base for a lemonade flavored beverage.

Thread-waisted wasps were gathered. They are a good thing since they prey on crickets and katydids which can be destructive

In Florida, R. copallinum is listed as a larval host for the Luna Moth (Actias luna) and Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis), although I’ve yet to experience this wildlife benefit. It is a larval host for the Redbanded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) and the numbers of this butterfly in my garden certainly speaks for it being so.

Redbanded Hairstreak Butterfly uses the Wing Sumac as a larval host.

Given all the benefit a sumac can provide to a wildlife garden, you certainly should investigate which species would work in your area of the country. Is Flame Leaf Prairie Sumac (R. lanceolata) right for you garden? or would Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina) be a better fit. No matter what your choice, this plant should be a priority in your wildlife gardening mecca.  The pollinators will thank you for it.

© 2012 – 2013, Loret T. Setters. 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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  1. says

    Man, I get this stuff wild all over, and unfortunately it never grows anywhere I want it to, and tends to show up in places where I absolutely CAN’T keep it (the six inch strip between sidewalk and foundation in back, directly in front of the side gate, etc) which kills me, because I love it. But it’s really grumpy about transplanting down here. It’s such an awesome plant, and I would love to get a stand of it going somewhere where I wasn’t forced to cut it down so that I can actually get into the garden!
    UrsulaV recently posted..Rain at last!

    • says

      Ursula, so many birds feast on the berries of this shrub, that you could chose a spot where you want it to grow … put up a perch for birds to sit on (a wire strung between two posts works great) . . . and stop mowing under your perch. I’ll bet you’ll get your stand of Winged Sumac in short order.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012

    • says

      I know what you mean Ursula.

      I have a couple of sumacs encroaching on a “woodland” pathway in a section I allowed to restore. I allowed them because I really wanted sumac to grow. Now in the latest restoration area I got that wanted “stand” of sumacs and in a beautiful configuration (nature is so wonderful). Perhaps the encroachers will be done in (if I find the courage) and I’ll regain the path.
      Loret recently posted..Rockin and Rolling Caterpillar Style

  2. says

    Loret, fun piece about one of my favorite native shrubs. Winged Sumac is the common sumac here in southern New Jersey too. Here 31 different birds feed on the fruits. During the peak of fall migration at Cape May, where so many birds concentrate, it’s great fun to stake out a patch of Winged Sumac and watch them feast. Thanks for bringing attention to this stunning native shrub!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012

      • says

        Yes Mockingbirds love Sumac fruits, but I’ve also watched E. Phoebe, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Junco, Carolina Chickadee, Yellow-breasted Chat, and E. Bluebirds (to name a few) feast on them . . . often in late December, as well as in February and March as a survival food when other berries are scarce.
        Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012


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