Extension Educator, Horticulture
With autumn's arrival some plants retire quietly into winter. After a final exhalation their leaves gradually give up their green life's-blood as they gravitate to the ground. Other plants flaunt their foliage to an autumn audience. Their leaves shriek in a dizzying carousel of orange, red, and yellow as they swirl around limbs and legs.
Our native Sumacs do not wait in the wings of an autumn theatre, but steal the show with their commanding colored costumes. Sumacs are also desirable landscape plants due to their adaptability to various soils and sun exposures. At first the name sumac may conjure up nightmares of itchy blisters and calamine lotion baths. Although it is in the same family as sumacs, poison sumac is more closely related to poison ivy than the landscape sumacs. No need to fear an itchy sumac attack from landscape sumacs.
Fragrant Sumac, Rhus aromatica, reaches 2-6 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. All Sumacs need room to move. As with many of the sumacs Fragrant Sumac makes an excellent ground cover or mass planting as it produces suckers to stabilize berms and banks. The three-parted summer leaves are a pleasant blue-green. The glossy leaves turn a brilliant orange-red to reddish purple in fall. On the female plants the small yellow flowers and hairy red fruits are delicately ornamental. The smaller sized cultivar 'Gro-Low' reaches 2 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
Flameleaf Sumac, also known as Shining Sumac, Rhus copallina, has few rivals for magnificent fall color. Flameleaf can reach 20 to 30 feet tall and just as wide. The shiny dark green leaves are made up of 9-21 leaflets. The flowers and fruits add some ornament as yellow feathery spikes in late summer turn to crimson fruits in fall. The lustrous dark green leaves live up to their name as they turn crimson-red and scarlet in autumn. The cultivar 'Creel's Quintet' has only 5 leaflets and grows 5-8 feet tall.
Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina is commonly available in the landscape industry. Its15-25 feet tall spread is equal to or greater than its height. It is adaptable but does prefer a well-drained site. A large colony of its twisted stems is quite picturesque in winter. The stems are very hairy giving rise to the common name of staghorn. Both the male and female flower spikes (borne on separate plants) are attractive. Female plants produce showy spikes of fruit clusters on their branch tips. The fuzzy dark red berries are a good winter identification feature until the birds strip them off as a mid winter snack. The complete leaf may be up to 2 feet long, but is divided into as many as thirty 4-inch long leaflets. The fall color is fluorescent scarlet orange. Cultivars 'Laciniata' and 'Dissecta' have extra divisions in the leaves to create a fine, ferny texture. Tiger Eye Sumac™ (R. typhina 'Bailtiger') is a marvelous chartreuse-leafed selection.
Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, is certainly beautiful in fall as it blankets hillsides in colors of red and yellow. It can get 10-15 feet tall and looks similar in shape and appearance to Staghorn Sumac except Smooth Sumac does not have the hairy stems. Unfortunately Smooth Sumac is ecologically ugly as it proves that even native plants can be weedy. It reseeds and the discarded stems root as it travels unabated through wild and manicured landscapes. As an ecological thug it suckers and sprouts everywhere. Run far and run fast from this one or it may blanket your house. Confusingly it also has a 'Laciniata' cultivar.
Sumacs can get a few insect and disease problems that can be remedied with periodic rejuvenation by pruning plants to the ground in late winter. If you have the space, sumacs are worth the price of admission.