by Jan Cashman
Few shrubs rival the often overlooked sumac for striking yellow, orange, and red leaves in the fall. There are approximately 250 species of woody shrubs in the sumac genus, Rhus. Some species of sumac are native to China and Japan, but many species are native to North America, in fact, almost every region of the U.S. has some variety of sumac native to it. Sumac produce flowers that are in dense spikes up to a foot long, either white, greenish, or red. These spikes form dense clusters of reddish, hairy fruit called “drupes” in the late summer.
In some Middle Eastern countries, the covering of this hairy fruit is harvested and used as a spice with rice. Native Americans used parts of the sumac for a drink or combined the leaves with tobacco for smoking. The berries have been used for a Japanese wax and the leaves for tanning leather.
Sumacs grow easily, even in dry, heavy soils with a high pH. Be aware that sumacs are a suckering shrub; plant them where the suckers won’t be a nuisance. Only a few species of sumac cultivated for landscape use are winter-hardy for our climate:
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a commonly planted shrub that grows to 10 feet with at least an equal spread. Its branches have a fuzzy covering resembling deer antlers in the velvet stage, hence the name. The attractive cutleaf variety of staghorn sumac spreads even more. Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is similar to staghorn except its branches are smooth.
In 2005, Bailey Nurseries, a large grower of hardy trees and shrubs near St. Paul, Minnesota, introduced Tiger Eyes sumac, a beautiful, 6 foot, golden-leafed form of cutleaf staghorn sumac. The branches of Tiger Eyes angle upward while the deeply cut leaflets drape downward, giving it a rather Oriental look. Fall color is vibrant orange and scarlet.
Skunkbrush sumac (R. trilobata), a medium sized (5’x5′) shrub is the only sumac native to this part of the country and the greater Rocky Mountain area. Its common name, along with another common name for it, polecat bush, were coined because the shrub has an unusual odor. When I rolled the leaves of our skunkbrush sumac in my hands, they gave off a strong, pungent odor, but it did not smell like skunk to me. The leaves of this drought tolerant, native shrub turn beautiful shades of red and orange in the fall making it a worthwhile shrub to add to your landscape.
The leaves of a newer variety of fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatic) called ‘Gro-Low’ look a lot like those of skunkbrush but ‘Gro-Low’ is low and spreading, growing to only 2 ½ feet but with a spread of up to 8 feet. Its low spreading shape makes ‘Gro-Low’, excellent for mass plantings. It has fragrant yellow flowers in the spring and spectacular fall foliage.
Most botanists do not put Poison Sumac in the Rhus genus, instead they use the genus Toxicodendron. This woody poisonous plant, not found in our area but in swampy areas of the eastern part of North America, can cause severe skin irritation and also internal irritations if the smoke is inhaled.
Unfortunately, sumacs are often overlooked when homeowners are choosing shrubs to plant. Sumacs are easy to grow, particularly the native skunkbrush sumac, even in dry areas with poor soil. Whether you need a tall shrub such as staghorn, or a lower one, like Gro-Low, sumacs with their brilliant red and orange leaves in the fall, and low maintenance, make a great choice for your landscape.