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You’ve surely seen them along the roads—drifts of tall shrubs with short, crooked trunks and fern-like foliage punctuated by huge, crimson clusters of edible berries. In the fall, the leaves turn deep orange or purplish red, and the burgundy-colored fruits decorate the picturesque, orange-brown branches throughout winter. Smooth sumac is an excellent large shrub for hot, dry locations where its lateral trunks and rhizomes can spread to form colonies that battle erosion and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Smooth sumac grows and spreads quickly by suckering and self-seeding in a variety of moist to dry soils, usually topping off at around 10 feet but sometimes reaching 20 feet tall and about as wide. It’s extremely tolerant of drought and salt, and it does better in heavier soils than many species of sumac. It prefers full or part sun but will not do well in full shade. In spring and early summer, both male and female plants produce flowers, but only fertilized female flowers produce the dense, upright clusters of berries. To ensure fruit production, plant three to five shrubs within fairly close proximity to each other. The berries, which are covered in a tart-tasting glaze, slowly scatter during winter if they are not eaten by humans or wildlife. They are hard, not soft and juicy, and need to be tenderized before use in the kitchen. Some North Americans soak the berries and prepare a delicious drink known as “sumac-ade.” The fruits of other sumac species are used as a spice that adds tangy flavor to dishes in the Middle East. The seedheads are also used in flower arrangements.


Smooth sumac is common in Ohio and is reportedly the only native shrub present in all of the contiguous states. In some areas, it’s described as weedy because of its spreading habit and ability to grow in any disturbed site as long as it doesn’t have wet soil or full shade. It’s vulnerable to verticillium wilt but impervious to most pests and diseases. Smooth sumac is part of the cashew family along with four other native sumacs and poison ivy. Rhus is from the Greek rhous, which is the common name of the sumac. Glabra is Latin and means smooth, or without hair; smooth sumac has hairless branches, buds, and leaves, while staghorn sumac has velvety branches, buds, and leaves. Tree of heaven and shining or staghorn sumac are often confused with smooth sumac.


Native habitats include edges of woods and open woodlands, disturbed areas, prairies, dry rocky hillsides, ravines, and roadsides. Best used on naturalized areas or slopes to help control erosion. May be used to make a hedge. Looks impressive when massed and allowed to spread. To rejuvenate colonies, cut them to the ground in mid-winter every few years. 


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 10-20’ tall and 20-30’ wide in colonies.


Prefers full or part sun.


Grows in a wide range of moist to dry soils, including sand, loam, and clay. Intolerant of wet soils.


From May-July, small greenish to pale yellow, star-shaped flowers appear in dense, upright, pyramid-shaped, 10” clusters. Round, red, slightly hairy drupes are about 1/8” wide and contain one seed. Drupes are in large, upright clusters that ripen in fall and persist on branches.


Alternate, pinnately compound leaves are 12-18” long with 11-31 lance-shaped leaflets (2-4” long) with serrated margins. Surfaces are dark green; pale undersides have fine hairs. Broken leaves leak a non-toxic white sap. Fall color is deep orange to deep scarlet.


Multiple trunks with brownish-gray bark and lenticels develop scaly ridges as they age. Lower trunks are lightly fissured or flaky. Stems and branches are glaucous (covered with a powdery bloom) and smooth, rather than hairy.


Wildlife Value:

Host plant for 54 species of Lepidoptera, including spring azure butterfly, cecropia moth and red-banded hairstreak butterfly, which broods twice a year. Bees, butterflies, and mining and bumble bees consume the nectar. Insects make their home in the berry clusters, which persist on the tree to provide food to mammals during lean winter months. Deer and opossum eat the fruits and leaves.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used the boiled fruits as a diuretic, as a remedy for painful menstruation and bloody diarrhea, and as a rinse to stop bleeding after childbirth. The roots and berries were steeped to make a wash for sores. A tea made from the leaves was used to treat asthma and diarrhea, and a tea prepared from the roots was used to treat tuberculosis.


Native Americans made hot and cold drinks from the fruits. To make your own sumac-ade, remove ripened clusters and pick off the berries. Tenderize the berries with your fingers, then put them in cold water overnight. Strain before drinking.


Young sprouts may be mixed into salads.


Traditionally, the leaves were mixed with tobacco and other herbs for smoking. The leaves were also a source of black ink, while the fermented berries yielded an orange-brown dye and the roots produced a yellow dye.


Photo of cecropia caterpillar taken by Jessica Elenis and used with permission.

Sumac, Smooth, Rhus glabra

Excluding Sales Tax
  • This plant will be offered as bare root in spring and later in the season as a potted shrub

  • For summer planting, water deeply 1-2 times weekly 


    For fall planting, water every 1-2 weeks; water more often during prolonged hot, dry spells

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