My dad looks at me dubiously over the dining room table all decked out for Thanksgiving. I recognize the look, because I have inherited it. If I feel someone is feeding me a line of crap you can read it all over my face, and that is what I am seeing here, across the table. Why the look? I have just told my dad the contents of the flower arrangement nestled among the good china, newly shined silver and gold rimmed wine glasses. I have always loved to go outside and gather what’s interesting from the yard to create seasonally representative flower arrangements. I enjoy doing this anytime but always create something for the big holidays. To me, it is fun to explore the yard in a different way, looking at plants and their parts as components of a floral design instead of a landscape design or plant community.
My dad has every right to be a little doubtful about this creation. My penchant for bringing nature onto the holiday table has certainly resulted in our fair share of spiders, caterpillars, moths and other insects venturing out from their botanical hiding place and onto the crystal butter dish. This is not lost on him. Family and friends at these dinners have always taken these visitors with good humor, laughing as, red-faced, I capture the critter and release it back into the wild. This late afternoon, the guests have not yet arrived, the table is still being set and I just placed an offending flower arrangement in the center of the table.
So if my dad is okay with 6-legged and 8-legged unexpected guests emerging from the centerpiece, what has him so worked up this time? Sumac. I have included the bright red fruits of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) in the arrangement. It is the perfect addition to the centerpiece. The color, a beautiful maroon, just screams autumn. They are stunning. And they last forever in an arrangement. I combined the sumac with tan, dried hydrangea flowers, some evergreen southern magnolia leaves, some winterberries, and some of the arborvitae that forms a wall separating their house from the neighbors. My dad was admiring the arrangement, asking about each element and everything was a-okay until I got to the sumac. Then… the look.
“Let’s make sure nobody touches that. Is it safe to have on the table, near food?” “Yes, Dad, it’s not Poison Sumac. Nobody will get sick if they eat it or touch it.” The look, again. I can tell he is torn. He has generations of knowledge about sumac that has been passed down to him and I have 4 years of Horticulture College. His gut is telling him to remove that potential for disaster from the table ASAP and his heart is telling him to have faith in the education and new-found knowledge of his oldest daughter. Heart wins. Centerpiece stays.
The way my dad feels about Sumac I give him great credit, and it gives you a little bit of insight about where I got my appreciation for nature, that he did not cut down the giant stand of sumac in his yard when they moved to the property. So how did sumac get this reputation for evil?
What Can you Tell from a Family Name?
It is all in a name. Up until a few years ago, all the sumacs as well as poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all had the same genus name: Rhus. This lead people to believe that all members of this genus were toxic, could cause rashes and were generally no good. Now think of all of the people in your family with the same last name. Are they ALL bad? Do they ALL cause problems? No, I am sure not. The same is true for Rhus. Thank goodness for Sumac’s public relations, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac and Poison Ivy relatively recently received a new name. Now known as Toxicodendron (just sounds sinister doesn’t it?), these vines and shrubs that keep some people from even venturing close to nature, are lumped together into their own dysfunctional group. While Rhus and Toxicodendron are still in the same botanical family, they have different genus, which will hopefully help with clearing up the much maligned name of Sumac. (You can compare this to your family, you have one last name and your cousins have another. You are all related, some closer than others, and you can’t predict the actions of a family member based solely on their last name.) They are all in the cashew family Anacardiaceae which contains mostly tropical plants and includes the nutritious cashew, the delicious mango, pistachios, and the decorative Smoke Bush.
Desperately Seeking Sumacs
Once you can get past the name, you will find sumacs are a great plant for your landscape. An indication that they will do well in tough situations is the fact that you can find them growing along railroad tracks, in medians and in vacant lots. Commonly called waste areas, investigate these spaces for native plants, identify them and you will have a plant list suitable for your own hard-to-grow-anything-in garden areas. Besides waste spaces, you will find Sumacs growing in dry open woods, shale barrens, thickets, fallow fields, dry open slopes, roadsides and wood edges depending on the species. Found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, Sumacs are salt tolerant and tolerant of soil compaction making them great candidates for urban landscapes. Sumacs will also tolerate growing under Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra). The fact they do well in these forgotten places is often a detriment to their survival. As they thrive, they hide guardrails and directional signage. This leads local DOTs to spray herbicides on these important native species, killing them and leaving lots of room for non-native species such as Tree of Heaven to thrive.
To ensure sumac survival, plant them in your landscape! Sumacs fit the multiple seasons of interest requirement for my landscape, flowering in the spring, fruiting through the summer and exhibiting beautiful fall color. The fruits provide food to numerous insects, birds and mammals including deer and rabbit, resident songbirds – who use it as emergency food in winter, and the Red-banded hairstreak and Spring and Summer Azure Butterflies, not to mention a great variety of moths as well. Their clumping habit provides thickets of shelter for a variety of birds and small mammals.
Sumacs propagate from underground root suckers creating colonies so this is not a specimen plant but rather a plant more suitable for an informal habitat planting or a challenging area that needs to be filled. I planted a cut leaf staghorn sumac along our neighbor’s chain link fence at our former house. We haven’t lived there for more than 3 years and our neighbor is still pulling sumac out of his flower beds. Though slightly less obnoxious than bamboo, sumacs can be aggressive and should be given room to roam.
There are quite a few Sumacs available in the trade today. Most require full sun and well-drained soil and most are relatively pest and disease resistant.
Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
Growing to 6′ tall, forms thickets and gets its name from the scent of the leaves and stems when crushed. Yellow flowers emerge in early spring from buds that formed the summer before (you can see them on the shrubs now).
‘Gro-Low’ – is a cultivar of Fragrant Sumac that tops out at 2′ tall spreading to 8′ wide. Commonly used in medians and to stabilize banks, Gro-Low has found its way into many commercial landscapes and parking lots. It is tolerant of many adverse conditions. I have mine growing in part shade in the gravel at the sides of the driveway. It is thriving there, though it is growing in mostly shade so the flowers and fall color aren’t as outstanding as they could be.
Winged Sumac (Rhus copallina)
Growing 18′ tall, this large shrub or small tree is named for the wings along the leaf stem. This sumac flowers later than Fragrant Sumac, holding off until July and flowering through September and showing off fruits through the fall.
Rhus Glabra (Smooth Sumac)
Topping out at 15′ tall, flowers June -August, fruits late August through October. Named for its lack of wings or fuzz on leaves or stems.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
The tallest of the group topping out at 30′ tall. Staghorn Sumacs are either male or female. You will get the maroon fruits like those I included in the flower arrangement from the female plants in late July and they will persist well into winter, both male and female will flower in June. Named for the brownish hairs covering the branches.
‘Tiger Eyes’ – A dwarf golden cut-leaved cultivar of Staghorn Sumac that doesn’t spread as aggressively as the species. Tops out about 6 feet tall. Will brighten up a partially shaded location. Yellow foliage is striking against purple-tinged stems. Red and orange fall color.
‘Dissecta’ – Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac – Similar characteristics to the species. Foliage is finely dissected.’
Turns out my dad had nothing to worry about on that dining room table. Sumac has a long history of culinary use. The fruits of Sicilian Sumac (Rhus coriaria) are dried and ground into a lemony spice commonly found in Middle Eastern cuisine. Sumac-ade is made from soaking the fruits of Staghorn Sumac in water until the water has a citrusy flavor similar to lemonade.
Whether it’s in a recipe on your plate, in a flower arrangement on your table, in your landscape or along the roadside during your next road trip – get to know and appreciate the many features of our native Sumac!