Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sumac: Bright red color in autumn

Rhus species

Sumac in a fencerow

The sumac in the image above is growing in a fence row along a road in Christian County, KY. Here in Kentucky, we also see sumacs growing at the edges of forests, in open areas in the woods, on sunny hillsides, and in old fields. They can soak up a lot of sun in such locations (one of the requirements of these small trees.)

Every state in the continental USA has one or more native sumacs. There are 15 or more different native species, not counting poison-ivy, poison-oak, and poison-sumac which are also in the Rhus genus.

I didn't try to identify the sumac in the photo above, but it is probably Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) or Rhus typhinia (staghorn sumac), both of which are common in this area. It's a young tree, judging by the spindly size of its trunk and the lack of fruit.

Sumac seed headThe sumacs I know, staghorn and smooth, produce a large colorful head of berries that holds on through the winter. The small berries don't have much pulp -- they are mostly seed. They are not a "first-choice" wildlife food, but they are important because many birds and animals eat sumac seeds when the supply of more desirable winter food is exhausted.

In the garden, either of these sumacs has year-round visual appeal. Their seedheads are interesting in winter. In the warm months, their long compound leaves have an exotic look. In autumn, they have vivid color. They will grow in almost any soil, even dry, gravelly areas where little else will survive, and they grow very quickly.

Sumac in OctoberTwo warnings about using sumac as an ornamental:

1. Sumacs form a clump by sending up root suckers.
2. Sumacs have weak wood that breaks easily in severe weather.

In my own experience with sumac, these problems haven't been too difficult to deal with. The suckers are controlled easily enough by mowing regularly. Some branches have broken in storms but we don't have the trees near our house, and they aren't very large trees anyway.

3 comments -- please add yours:

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea what would cause sumacs to have yellowing, curled leaves, dying back from the tips? I'm looking at some samples someone brought into the extension office. Thanks,
Juanita, Volunteer Master Gardener,

Genevieve said...

It surely must be a chemical injury or some change in the soil that they don't like. I wonder if the homeowner might have put too much lime around them while liming the lawn? Just a wild guess. In one of my tree books, it lists several sumacs, and they all require pH 6.1 to 7.0. It also mentions verticillium wilt under diseases, but says it is uncommon.

betty-boop said...

yes i would like to know if these trees need both male and female to produce fruit..or do they have to be a certain age.. Debbie..alfred ontario

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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