Always champion of the underdog, the Grump comes to you today to defend the honor of a maligned and seldom appreciated plant — sumac.
Sumac gets a bad rap for two reasons. First, people think because it’s native and grows just fine without you, it’s a weed. Second, folks believe that contact with sumac foliage causes skin rashes just like poison ivy. It does not.
But you can’t blame them for assuming that. After all, until recently sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak were all classified under the same genus, Rhus. Then wiser minds prevailed and poison ivy and oak were moved to a different genus, Toxicodendron, which is Latin for “poison tree.” This latter genus ialso ncludes a sumac impostor that does cause rashes, poison sumac (T. vernix). I’ll reveal some easy ways to distinguish good sumac from poison sumac a little later.
With some exceptions, sumacs share a number of characteristics. They’ll grow on just about any well-drained soil, no matter how bad, and are very drought tolerant. They become multi-trunked large shrubs or small trees that spread by suckers to form thickets. Compound leaves up to 2 feet long consist of many pairs of lance-shaped leaflets. They offer some of nature’s finest fall colors, turning incandescent orange, scarlet, and crimson in early fall.
Clusters of greenish yellow flower appear in June and July. Upright or pendulous bunches of showy scarlet and crimson fruits ripen in fall. The fruits feed a wide range of wildlife and I’ve sampled a very nice tea made from the fruits of shining sumac (R. copallina). As I did not contract a nasty throat rash, this proves my point that true sumacs don’t so this.
Types to Try
Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is probably the most commonly used species in gardens. It gets its name from the fuzzy velvet that coats its branches, as well as its antler-like appearance in winter. Upright, pyramidal fruit clusters are the showiest of the sumacs. Staghorn can grow 30 feet tall or more, but if that’s too big for your garden, try a superior, cutleaf selection, ‘Laciniata,’ shown at the top. It grows only half that tall and features very handsome, dissected foliage.
‘Tiger Eyes’ (below) is another staghorn selection that’s getting a lot of press. It features golden, deeply cut leaves in summer that change to red and orange in fall. It grows to about 6 feet tall and spreads very slowly. It also grows very slowly — in fact, for me it’s just sat there for two years without doing much at all. I can’t believe it — a wimpy sumac.
Shining sumac (R. copallina), below, grows all around my neighborhood in Hoover, Alabama. It can grow up to 30 feet tall with a picturesque, flat-topped shape, but what I’ve seen mainly grows about 15 feet tall. It’s said to sucker aggressively, but it hasn’t in my garden. An easy way to tell it from other sumac species is by the winged stems of its glossy leaves.
How to Grow Sumac
It’s really easy. All it needs are:
2. Well-drained soil
You can propagate it by seed or dividing the roots. No problemo there.
Telling Good Sumac from Poison Sumac
1. Good sumac is common. Poison sumac is rare.
2. Good sumac likes dry soil. Poison sumac likes wet soil.
3. Good sumac may have fuzzy branches. Poison sumac never will.
4. Good sumac has red fruits. Poison sumac has white fruits.
5. Good sumac has green leaf stems. Poison sumac has bright red leaf stems.
You may be able to find ‘Tiger Eyes’ or cutleaf sumac at your nursery, but don’t bet the farm on it. A good mail-order source for many different types of sumac is Forest Farm Nursery.