Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2011
Regional Report

Share |

The fuzzy texture of staghorn sumac is just one reason to consider sumacs for your garden.

Superior Sumacs

Revenge hardly ever, maybe never, tastes sweet, but vindication can be another story entirely. Many of trees and shrubs in my garden are native to the area, and among my favorites are various sumacs. From childhood, I have appreciated their glorious fall colors, to say nothing of the sumac "lemonade" my mother would make.

Because they're so common in fence rows and along roadsides, sumacs are seldom considered a prime garden plant. That has begun to change with several new cultivars available in recent years. It should change even more with sumacs making the cover of American Nurseryman, a trade publication for the commercial horticultural industry. The article inside reported on the trials held at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania from 1999 through 2006. Multiple plantings of fourteen different sumacs were minimally maintained and evaluated over seven years, including size, growth habit, stems, foliage, flowers, and fruiting. Bottom line, these are rugged plants known for their durability and multi-season interest. So which sumacs were outstanding and should be considered for your garden?

Fragrant Sumac
Commonly known as fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica is a suckering, spreading shrub growing 2 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet across, tolerating dry, average, or moist soils. It naturally found in much of the eastern United States at the edges of woods, in dry uplands, and on rock outcroppings.

Fragrant sumac bears small clusters of tiny, pale yellow flowers in spring just before or as the leaves are appearing. These emerging leaves have a reddish color, which turns green as they mature, then become shades of red, burgundy, and orange in the fall, often all seen at once. During the winter, clusters of red fruit provide some color.

There are no serious insect or disease issues with fragrant sumac and it is not affected by poor soil or road salt. As it is a spreading plant, it is best used in masses with room to grow. One type of ideal setting is filling in a large slope. Besides the species, there are a few cultivars to consider. 'Konza' has greater fruit production and vigor and is suggested for use as a screen or erosion control as it can reach 10 feet tall. The most readily available cultivar is 'Gro-Low'. It reaches 2 to 3 feet tall and spreads to 8 feet.

Shining Sumac
Shining sumac, Rhus copallina, is a large shrub or small tree that can reach 20 feet tall and wide. The highly glossy, compound leaves are 6 to 12 inches long. They are show-stopping in the fall, turning a bright red. The greenish-white flower clusters are pyramid-shaped and up to 8 inches long. Small red fruits follow flowering. These are not only attractive but provide food for birds and mammals in winter. Like most sumacs, shining sumac does sucker, so be sure to give it plenty of space. It grows in both full sun and part shade. Shining sumac was described as graceful and interesting by those doing the evaluations at Longwood.

The cultivar sold as Prairie Flame (Rhus copallina var. latifolia 'Morton') has all the admirable characteristics of the species but grows no taller than 7 feet, with a spread of about 10 feet. 'Lanham's Purple' shining sumac grows 6 to 8 feet tall, with leaves that emerge purple, then mature to a burgundy-green.

Smooth Sumac
Growing to 15 feet tall and wide, smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, also forms a small tree or large shrub, with an open, upright form and thick stems, adding great architectural interest to the garden. The green, compound leaves reach 12 to 18 inches long. They are bronze as they emerge, then turn bright red and orange in the fall. The yellow-green flower clusters reach up to a foot long and are frequented by butterflies and bees. The mahogany red fruits persist into winter, again providing food for wildlife. The cultivar 'Laciniata' is widely available. It was discovered in 1863 near Philadelphia and is beloved for the deeply cut leaflets.

Staghorn Sumac
Tolerating almost any type of soil unless it is poorly drained, staghorn sumac also provides architectural interest with its trunks growing up to 30 feet tall. Left alone, it can spread as wide, but the suckers can be readily removed. Still, be sure to give it plenty of space. Children of all ages are fascinated by the fine, reddish-brown hairs covering the stems, giving them a velvety feel. This and the antler-like architecture of the stems has given rise to the common name.

Staghorn sumac has an almost tropical feel to it, especially since the compound leaves can be 18 to 24 inches long. The fall colors of red, orange, or yellow create a winning look in the garden. Yellow-green flower clusters reach 8 inches long, followed by dense clusters of red, fuzzy fruits.

The cultivar 'Dissecta' is a cut-leaf form that was found in Massachusetts in 1892. From the Longwood Trial results, it seems to survive better in the landscape than the species, and it was the most highly rated of any of the sumacs. The introduction of a cultivar of staghorn sumac sold as Tiger Eyes has really brought this native to the forefront, what with its intensely chartreuse, deeply cut leaves that turn to yellow. It grows to 6 feet tall. Try it underplanted with variegated hostas or use it in a container with clematis twisting around the stems.

With attributes that include drought tolerance, fall color, wildlife attraction, interesting foliage, and architectural form, the various native sumacs offer wonderful possibilities for the garden.

Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!


Today's site banner is by Marilyn and is called "Salvia regla 'Royal'"