The Sumac (Rhus) family includes a selection Wisconsin native shrubs noted for their fern-like foliage, site adaptability, and wildlife value. They're a very strong plant in native and land restoration projects because the majority of the family are colonizers, meaning they're vigorous and will spread; therefore, not ideal for urban landscapes.
You likely recognize this plant in Wisconsin along highways and natural areas, especially in fall when the colors stand out against conifers. While some of these Sumacs may be bad, a large population of them are truly our Wisconsin native sumacs. We'll go into this deeper down below.
Sumacs can be used in a wide variety of garden and landscape settings, but seldom in smaller, formal, or rural landscapes. Unless you're willing to manage the spreading nature of these shrubs, the primary goals of this plant are native restoration and natural slope stabilization sites. While this is the case for the native sumacs (Rhus), Fragrant sumacs (Rhus aromatica) offer formal, smaller, urban, and parking lot sites a strong contender for appropriate plantings. Here are some different ways you can grow Sumacs:
With the addition of Fragrant Sumacs (Rhus aromatica), your growing capacities expand to:
Flowers: All native sumac female plants produce panicle flowers (slender, cone) that appeal to many levels of the food web. These flowers provide pollen for native insects, which in-turn attracts birds for food. The flowers will also attract butterflies. Native sumacs are a host plant for butterfly species, such as the Luna moth, Spring Azure butterfly, and Red-banded Hairstreak. While the larger sumacs flower in June-July, Fragrant Sumacs (Rhus aromatica) develop flowers in early spring before the leaves emerge. This provides a great option for the wildlife coming out of the Wisconsin's winter or returning from migrations.
Fruit (Drupes): Again, native sumac female plants produce fruit in fall that persist into winter. These fuzzy drupes are made of small, red pubescent berries that are an important food source for birds, small mammals, and deer. Over 300 species of birds dine on sumac fruit including: ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, eastern phoebe, common crow, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, American robin, wood thrush, hermit thrush, eastern bluebird, and quail.
Bark/Stems: Rabbits and squirrels will eat the bark, and deer will browse on both stems and fruits on Rhus sp. Remember, these are colonizing/aggressive plants that bounce back. Need proof? Look all over Wisconsin's natural landscapes in fall. As with most newly installed plants, we always recommend Deer Protection. The Fragrant Sumacs (Rhus aromatica) have been observed as less susceptible to deer browse.
Pruning: This is an extremely aggressive plant that’s not suited for small landscapes. Plant only in sites where it’s permitted to sucker and colonize. Should you desire to plant sumac in a formal landscape, you can use native sumacs if you're willing to control its aggressive growth. Or choose a less aggressive, lower-maintenance, and lower-growing alternative for more controlled sites, like Fragrant Sumacs. While you'll lose the height of the native sumacs, you'll retain many of the ornamental and wildlife value qualities with the lower growing Fragrant Sumacs.
Cautions: There are many different types of Sumac. While we grow and plant native sumac shrubs, there are natural types (i.e Poison Sumac) that look similar. With native sumacs, a lemonade-like beverage, high in vitamin C and antioxidants, can be made by steeping Smooth Sumac fruit in hot water. Don't get caught using the wrong plants. If you don’t see those red berries, it’s best to just leave the plant entirely alone! Check out Sumacs: The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful by Mike Yanny.
The Taller Staghorn & Smooth
The Shorter, Mounded/Sprawling Aromaticas