SEEKING SUMAC

Story and Photos by Michelle Reynods

I’ve always had an appreciation for sumac (Rhus spp.). During summer vacations and weekend trips, as I travel across the state to various destinations, our native sumacs keep my eyes and my mind alert. Looking for sumacs on roadsides, hillsides, along power lines and railroad rights-of-way, in fallow fields, prairies, meadows, and forest edges, I see quick glimpses of ripening red drupes, as well as the birds that eat the berries.

In the fall, the compound pinnate leaves changing colors – green to orange to red – accompany tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) for a perfect hot color combo. On the way to visit relatives during the holidays and throughout the winter months, I spy the leafless colonies of winged (R. copallinum) and smooth sumacs (R. glabra) standing amongst tall brown grasses. During spring break, I’m on the road again. And after the spring mowings of highway rights-of-way and fields, I can’t wait to spot signs of the sumacs’ return.

It took me a long time to get up enough nerve to touch the leaves of fragrant sumac, crush them up in my hand, and smell the pleasant scent. The leaves may look like poison ivy, but this plant is not poisonous!

In March, the flowers of fragrant sumac (R. aromatica) are the first to appear. Yellow catkin-like blooms on tips of sprawling gray branches of the low-growing shrubs are easy to spot high atop limestone ledges of road cuts. By April, I’m looking for emerging fern-like leaves to form tufts upon the woody stalks of smooth sumac. I know the erect panicles of tiny yellowish green flowers will soon follow.

Things happen a little later on with the winged sumacs. The leaves are pinnately compound, like the smooth, but the leaf stems are winged and ribbed. On bent and gnarled branches, panicles of whitish green flowers bloom in summer. 

All of these species produce clusters of red berries. Fragrant sumac clusters are small and round, smooth sumac clusters are pyramidal and erect, while those of winged sumac are drooping. Berries persist through the winter and are an important food source for wildlife.

Winged sumac has winged leaf stems and drooping berry clusters.

Here in central and north Alabama, I lead native plant talks, wildflower walks, and I teach workshops on how to celebrate backyard biodiversity (and front yard biodiversity, too). Whenever I mention how much I love sumacs for their berries, fall color, and wildlife benefits, inevitably someone in the group will ask, “Isn’t sumac poisonous?” My reply is always the same: It is unlikely the sumac you see in your neck of the woods is the poisonous species. Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is pretty rare in these parts, and its drupes are loose and white, not red and compact like the Rhusberries. The only time I see poison sumac is when I’m exploring the coastal plant communities on my way to the beach, because this species is usually found in wetland ecosystems.

I like the colonization of sumacs, but it takes special circumstance to appreciate them in a garden. The plants spread by suckering roots and the underground network can help stabilize soils. They look great on a slope or on the corner of a large lot with native bunchgrasses and prairie wildflowers underneath. Fragrant sumac is more appropriate for home gardens. Combine the species with ‘Gro-Low’ for a dramatic effect. Plant them in groups on a bank for stabilization. They make a good hedge, a feature plant cascading over a rock wall, a foundation plant in a border, or in naturalized areas.

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