Sensational Sumac

The spectacular color and form of this lesser-known tree make it a garden stand-out.

Rhus Glabra Leaves Turn Red in Fall

Rhus Glabra Leaves Turn Red in Fall

Photo by: DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide , 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Want something completely different, super-exotic looking, and incredibly tough and hardy, that nobody else has in their landscape? 

Think sumac—one of North America’s best contributions to European gardens. Our native sumacs are small trees, up to 30 feet tall, with fern-like compound leaves which make great loose-textured landscape accents, highly favored as small courtyard trees in English and European gardens and as erosion control in hard-to-mow dry hillsides. The spreading, multiple-trunk plants have hollow, pithy stems which were highly valued by Native Americans and colonists for making pipe stems.

Clusters of small, greenish-white summer flowers, usually covered with bees and other pollinating insects, are held upright in thick spires up to a foot long, which quickly start forming the characteristic dense clusters of crimson red seeds. The small drupes are covered with very fine hairs that have a distinct citrusy flavor when tasted; in fact, as a Boy Scout I often made a tangy summer “lemonade” by soaking and swishing the fruits in water before straining and adding a little sugar. As a bonus, the tiny hairs on the fruits are high in ascorbic acid and vitamin C! The dried drupes of some species can also be ground into a crimson spice used in preparing rice and many Middle Eastern dishes. 

The plants are easily spread by seed, but usually far away from your own garden so there is less pulling needed for errant new plants. However, sumacs can spread from underground rhizomes into sometimes–large colonies. 

Unsurpassable Fall and Winter Color

Sumac seed pods remain on plants well into winter, adding a dash of extra texture and color long after everything else has turned brown. They attract colorful winter birds, which know it as a great emergency food when other sources of food may be lacking.

By the way, because sumacs are either male or female, only the female plants have the attractive seed clusters. If you are collecting a specimen for your garden from a native stand found along a roadside, be sure to dig a small plant or two from the outer edge of a clump of female sumac, to be sure you will have the fall and winter fruits in your own garden.

Best of all, one of their strongest suits for sumac is their unsurpassable fall colors. Topping the wide, architectural plants are leaves that turn brilliant golden and crimson in the fall, from Canada and New England to even the normally fall color-starved coastal Southeast and other mild-climate areas. In fact, the name sumac comes from an ancient word meaning “red.”

Not Poisonous

Unlike its close relatives, poison ivy, oak and sumac, the landscape sumacs do not cause itchy rashes. Vine- and shrub-like poison ivy and oak have three distinct leaflets per leaf, so there is no confusing those. But poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is also a small tree with leaves like regular sumac. Difference is, poison sumac has clusters of grayish white berries that hang down, and the plants grow exclusively in low, wet, or flooded areas such as swamps and peat bogs. You will not find poison sumac growing up on high, dry hillsides where non-poisonous ornamental kinds typically grow.

Several Great Choices

The most popular sumacs for landscape use are winged, staghorn, and smooth sumac, either the native wild species or specially-bred cultivated varieties such as the golden leaf “Tiger Eye” sumac.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a small tree with branches that spread to make a small rounded crown. Its forked branches are covered with furry rust-red colored hairs, much like a stag’s antlers. Fruit clusters are long and tight, and covered with the same velvety fur.

“Cutleaf” staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina laciniata) is an especially beautiful form with finely divided leaflets. 

One of its most exceptional cultivars is 'Tiger Eyes', with chartreuse green leaves that quickly change to yellow, in a nice contrast to its rosy-pink leaf stems; it is especially dramatic when the leaves begin to turn scarlet in the fall.

The leaves of winged sumac (Rhus copallina) feature flat membranes called “wings” along the midrib. The flower and fruit panicles are only four or five inches long and wide, and are less dense than other species.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is a smaller tree with smooth twigs and looser fruit clusters. The undersides of the leaflets are pale, almost white, giving it a shimmery effect in soft breezes. ‘Prairie Flame’ is a cultivar with exceptionally brilliant red fall color.

There are other sumacs worthy of landscapes, including a low-growing, fast-spreading “fragrant sumac” (Rhus aromatica) which makes a superb groundcover for dry slopes. Though its fall colors are as brilliant as any other sumac, it has three leaflets per leaf, making it look a little too much like poison oak or ivy for some people’s comfort.  

Hard to Beat

Sumacs are not for everyone or every garden. In spite of their many great attributes—native plants, good for bees and birds, great for erosion control, tolerant of poor soils and prolonged drought, and no real pests, their architectural look and spreading habits may be too bold for some.

But if you are looking for something special – appreciated in European gardens more than in their native lands – sumacs are hard to beat. And you can make lemonade from them in the summer.

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