Sumac shrubs provide intriguing visuals throughout most of the year, whether they’re growing along roadsides or planted as garden accents. Large flower clusters in spring are followed by brilliantly colored fall foliage in orange, flame red, and burgundy. The flower clusters produce berrylike drupes that turn red in autumn and last well into winter where they serve as tasty snacks for wildlife.
Because sumac comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it makes a great companion plant in the garden. Selections range from low-growing spreading types that work as underplantings for large low-maintenance areas to large plants that create garden focal points. Most varieties display fernlike compound leaves that turn the plants into softly textured landscape accents.
All sumac varieties bloom, although the smaller ones bear insignificant flowers. Larger varieties make up for the small bloom size by displaying big white clusters of petals loved by pollinators. After the flowers fade, they form clusters of brightly colored fuzzy red fruit called drupes. But the real show doesn't begin until fall, when sumac's foliage displays cover hillsides in glowing tones of orange, red, burgundy, and gold.
Sumac Care Must-Knows
Gardeners often choose sumac because it tolerates a wide range of soil types—as long as it's not poorly drained. Saturated soil may lead to root rot.
Plant sumac in full sun. Some species tolerate part shade, but limited exposure to sunlight may lead to looser plant habits and muted coloring. Golden-leaf cultivars such as Tiger Eyes (a staghorn sumac) need some shelter from the afternoon sun to prevent leaf burn. If this plant grows in full sun, its brightly colored foliage may show evidence of bleaching.
Sumac spreads easily, typically forming a dense thicket of growth via underground rhizomes. Keep this characteristic in mind when deciding where to plant it, because larger species may be difficult to control. Smaller species are easier to control by digging. Some sumacs spread via seeds, so deadhead spent blossoms if self-seeding is a concern.
More Varieties of Sumac
Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' brings the fall garden to life with its outstanding fall foliage in shades of red, orange, and gold. During the rest of the growing season, its deeply dissected foliage gives this large shrub a fernlike appearance. Plants grow 10-12 feet tall and wide, sending up suckers from the roots to develop large colonies if left unchecked. Zones 3-8.
Rhus copallina latifolia 'Prairie Flame' is a dwarf selection of shining sumac introduced by Morton Arboretum. It grows just 5-7 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. Prairie Flame is a male clone, so it develops panicles of yellow-green flowers in summer but does not fruit. The glossy green leaves turn purple-red to orange in autumn. Zones 4-9.
Rhus copallina is also known as winged sumac because its glossy compound leaves have a wing along the central leaf vein. It can become a large shrub or small tree 10-20 feet tall and 10-12 feet wide. Like most other sumacs, it has excellent fall color and spreads by underground rhizomes, but it is less aggressive than smooth sumac. Zones 4-9.
Rhus integrifolia is a Southern California native plant that is extremely drought-tolerant. It reaches up to 10 feet tall inland but may remain under 3 feet tall near the coast. The shrub spreads 10-15 feet wide. Clumps of pinkish-white flowers develop into reddish-pink fruits that can be steeped in water to make a lemonade-flavor beverage. Zones 9-10.
Rhus typhina colonizes to form a grove of small trees or large shrubs 15-25 feet tall and wide. It gets its common name from the appearance of bare winter branches. The forked shoots are covered with hairs, resembling deer antlers in the velvet stage. Female plants develop panicles of red fruits that persist through winter. Fall color is excellent. Zones 4-8.