This ground-hugging, multi-stemmed shrub grows 2 to 6 feet tall and spreads up to 10 feet wide, displaying tiny yellow flowers, clusters of red berries, and glossy green leaves that turn a vibrant mix of oranges and reds in the fall. As a pioneer species that thrives in difficult conditions, it’s easily grown in a wide range of average to dry soils and full to part sun. This is one of those coveted plants that will survive in a shadier spot with poor soil and little moisture, and it’s often used by professional landscapers to rehabilitate disturbed sites, stabilize embankments, and fill in “trouble spots.” The male and female flowers typically grow on separate plants, so incorporate at least two or three shrubs in your landscape to increase your odds of growing flowers and fruits.
The sumac family includes such luminaries as cashew, pistachio, and mango, but the three-part, compound leaves of fragrant sumac are more likely to be confused with the leaves of fragrant sumac’s toxic cousins, poison sumac and poison ivy. Fragrant sumac is non poisonous; however, contact with its leaves may cause a temporary rash. The specific epithet, aromatica, refers to the distinct, earthy scent of the crushed leaves and twigs (other common names are polecatbush and skunkbush). To aid in distinguishing between the poisonous and non-poisonous plants, fragrant sumac’s flowers helpfully appear in a tight cluster before the leaves emerge in spring, whereas poison oak’s yellow flowers appear in a loose inflorescence. Plus, fragrant sumac has hairy, red drupes rather than the whitish drupes of its cousins.
Fragrant sumac is a highly valuable plant for wildlife, providing food and nesting materials for large numbers of native and honey bees. The fruits are an important winter food for many species of birds and mammals, and the plant’s spreading habit creates dense thickets that provide cover for many types of wildlife. It tends to be unbothered by diseases, and it attracts predatory insects that feed upon pest insects.
Prune every few years in late winter or early spring to remove dead branches, provide air circulation, and rejuvenate the shrub. Remove one-third of the oldest branches by cutting at the base. Wear gloves and long-sleeved shirts to avoid skin irritation.
Native habitats include dry or rocky prairies, abandoned fields, open woods, lower rocky slopes, and roadsides. Very attractive when planted en masse as an informal hedge or when allowed to spread in drifts in naturalized areas. It’s especially useful for inhospitable areas and steep slopes.
Grows 2-6’ tall and 4-10’ wide.
Grows in full or part sun.
Grows on dry, shallow-rocky, sandy, loamy, and clay soils. May develop chlorosis if not enough acidity is present.
Male catkins develop in the summer and persist through winter to release pollen in early spring. Female flowers with 5 yellow petals and stamens and 3-part styles grow in tightly packed clusters before the emergence of leaves. Red drupes ¼” wide and containing a single nutlet hang in clusters.
Trifoliate, alternate leaves are 3-5” long, coarsely toothed, and somewhat hairy on both sides.
Multiple curving stems are covered in smooth, gray-brown bark with lenticels, later developing peeling splits.
Sumacs are a host plant for 54 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the red-banded hairstreak butterfly and luna and 9 specialist moths. The flowers provide nectar for adult butterflies. The fruits are eaten by small mammals and birds, such as raccoons, oppossums, chipmunks, wild turkeys, ruffed grouses, robins, mockingbirds, crows, and flickers.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Various Native American tribes used fragrant sumac to treat various illnesses and health problems, including diarrhea, colds, toothaches, and burns. The bark was used as an astringent.
Native Americans used the fruits to make a tart drink similar to lemonade.
The leaves and bark were used for tanning leather because of the high tannin content. The leaves were mixed with tobacco and used as a smoking mixture.
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