Sumac Tree Types, Purposes & Cautions

Autumn red, orange and yellow leaves of Rhus typhina tree

If you love fall color, consider planting a sumac or two. These trees and shrubs have stunning fall color--usually bright red--that is sure to be the perfect focal point for your fall garden. And, they're very low-maintenance, which is always a good thing.

Growing Sumac in Your Garden

There are about 250 species of sumac, which are known botanically as Rhus. They're usually grown as ornamental shrubs or small trees, and they offer interest all year long.

In spring, they produce panicles or spikes (depending on species) of cream, greenish, or red flowers. Many sumacs go on to produce red fruit which attracts birds, and then the foliage develops vibrant color in the fall.

The largest sumacs grow to about 30 feet tall when grown as a tree, but most are grown as shrubs.

The hardiness of sumacs depends on variety, but many are hardy to Zone 3.

Where to Plant Sumac: Light and Soil Requirements

Sumacs are generally not picky about soil, even growing well in poor soil, as long as it's well-drained.

Most varieties are perfectly happy in full sun to partial shade, but in general, you'll see more intense fall color if they're planted in full sun.

Watering and Fertilizing

It's best to water newly planted sumacs every other day for the first few weeks, and then weekly during dry periods for the first three years. After that, you can let Mother Nature take care of irrigation. Sumacs are pretty drought-tolerant once they're established.

Sumacs don't need additional fertilizer. A topdressing of compost in the surrounding area and some organic mulch applied every spring will add fertility as it breaks down.

Pruning Sumac

In general, sumacs don't require pruning unless you want a particular shape or size. If so, it's best to prune them in late winter or early spring.

Sumacs have a tendency to sucker, so you may want to cut the suckers off at ground level so the sumac doesn't invade the surrounding area. It's also a good idea to prune out any dead or snapped branches as you notice them.

Sumac Pests and Diseases

Sumacs aren't really affected by many pest or disease issues and are even deer-resistant shrubs. However, there are a couple of issues you'll want to watch for.

  • Sumac Powdery Mildew: This fungus gives the leaves a powdery appearance, and it's more likely during very wet weather or when the plant doesn't have good airflow around it. You can treat it with a DIY powdery mildew treatment or any other fungicide, or simply trim off affected leaves as soon as you notice them.
  • Sumac Shoot Blight: If you start noticing small, discolored splotches on the stems of your sumacs, it's very likely shoot blight. It's best to prune off any affected branches and dispose of them rather than adding them to your compost pile. This is usually the result of soilborne bacteria, so if you start having this issue every year, it might be necessary to remove the sumacs from the area.

Propagating Sumac

There are two general ways of propagating sumac: by seed and by root cuttings.

  • Sumacs grow easily from seed--so easily that they're spread reliably by birds and other animals who eat their fruit. You can sow sumac seeds directly into the garden where you'd like the plant to show up in fall, or start them inside in late winter.
  • If you (or someone you know) has an established sumac, you can dig up some of the roots and plant them elsewhere. Sumacs sucker easily and will grow easily from root cuttings. This is the fastest and easiest way to propagate them.

Beautiful Sumacs to Grow in Your Garden

No matter where you live or what style of garden you have, there's likely to be a type of sumac tree or shrub that will fit perfectly in your landscape. Here are some of the most highly recommended sumacs to consider planting.

Smooth Sumac

Autumn leaves of Rhus Glabra 'Smooth Sumach'

Rhus glabra is an open-growing shrub that seldom reaches 15 feet tall. The leaves are alternate and compound; they can have 11 to 31 leaflets. The leaflets have serrated edges. It's hardy in Zones 3-9.

Fall foliage is bright red. The flowers are green panicles that produce crimson berries. The berries usually remain on the bush all winter, providing even more seasonal interest and food for wildlife.

Staghorn Sumac

Stag-horn sumac tree and insects around

Rhus typhina is hardy in Zones 5-8 and can grow up to 30 feet tall, although cultivars developed for use as ornamental shrubs are usually smaller. It has alternate, pinnately compound leaves made up of nine to 31 leaflets. The stems are covered with rust-colored hairs.

The fall foliage of staghorn sumac is a brilliant red. The fruit appears in the fall in conical clusters of small red drupes.

Lemonade Berry

Lemonade Berry

Rhus integrifolia is native to a relatively small area of southwestern California. The evergreen leaves are simple and have a leathery texture. The small white or pink flowers appear in clusters. The fruit is reddish in color, covered with hairs, and sticky.

Lemonade berry is hardy in Zones 7-10.

Prairie Flameleaf Sumac

Rhus lanceolata is a sumac that's native to Texas. It's hardy to Zone 6 and grows into a 30 foot tall tree. This variety is very drought-tolerant and has gorgeous red and orange fall color.

Fragrant Sumac

Fragrant Sumac

Rhus aromatica provides vibrant fall color and ornamental berries. The flowers are a pale green color that mostly blend into the foliage. It grows very well even in poor soil and is one of the most adaptable sumacs, hardy in zones 2-8.

Gro-Low Sumac

'Gro-Low' is a spreading groundcover cultivar of Rhus aromatica. It only grows to about 18 inches tall, yet boasts the same vibrant fall color as its larger relative. It's hardy in Zones 4-9.

Tiger Eye Sumac

'Tiger Eye' is a dwarf cultivar of staghorn sumac that has bright yellowish-green foliage that turns orange in fall. It grows to about six feet tall and is hardy in Zones 4-9.

Fernleaf Sumac

Fernleaf Sumac

Fernleaf sumac, also known as sumac laciniata, is a cultivar of smooth sumac that has reddish stems, deep green leaves, and bright red fall color. It also produces deep, scarlet-colored fruits in late summer and fall. It grows to about 10 to 15 feet tall and is hardy in Zones 3-9.

Poisonous Sumac to Avoid

There is one sumac you'll want to avoid planting in your garden (and get rid of if you find it growing there)--poison sumac. Formerly known as Rhus vernix and now as Toxicodendron vernix, poisonous sumac is highly toxic.

It grows to about 10 feet tall and favors wet, even swampy, soils. Unlike other sumacs, it produces berries that are gray or white, rather than red.

Poisonous sumac is closely related to poison ivy and poison oak and can cause the same type of rashes and itchiness.

Good Companions for Sumac

Because of sumac's natural tendency to sucker and spread, it's not a great idea to plant it in a perennial bed, where you'll have to regularly keep it from crowding out the other plants.

Sumac is a great choice, however, for hedges or shrub borders. Consider planting sumac with:

  • Redbuds
  • Ninebark
  • Red-twig dogwood
  • Pussy willow
  • Red cedar
  • Viburnums
  • Junipers

Sumacs for Fall Color and Wildlife Habitat

If you garden with wildlife in mind, or if you're looking for a plant that will really stand out in fall, sumacs are a wonderful option. Not only do they provide food for the birds as well as beauty, but they're extremely low maintenance as well--truly a win-win all around.

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Sumac Tree Types, Purposes & Cautions