So Many Sumacs

When people think of sumacs, they may not think of the lovely native species we have available for our landscapes. Rhus is a genus that contains some pretty cool plants. But it is also the genus of maligned poison ivy and poison sumac. 

In Arizona there are about 8 species of Rhus, and several of them are readily available in the landscape trade (if you know where to look). Most of our native sumacs make large shrubs and some of them are evergreen. Those that aren’t present gorgeous fall colors (red, orange, and yellow leaves in fall). 

The Desert Prairie Flame Sumac (Rhus lanceolata) has gorgeous fall color.

The Desert Prairie Flame Sumac (Rhus lanceolata) has gorgeous fall color.

In general our sumacs are pretty hardy to the cold since most of them occur at higher elevations than the Tucson basin. 

The flowers on most species are nice, fragrant, white flowers which are followed by hairy and glandular (thus sticky) fruits, with an orange or red hue. These species are used to make a lemonade-like drink by smashing fruits and infusing into water, sometimes in the sun, other times infused like a tea. The resulting liquid has a tart (like lemonade or tamarind) flavor. 

These fruits can be processed into preserves, baked into pastries and cakes, cooked into soups, sugared and dried, or dried for tea.

The Quick Way To Make Sumac Tea

All sumacs appreciate good drainage, and some will suffer from poorly drained soils. Take care not to disturb the roots too much upon planting--some species really don’t tolerate root disturbance. Avoid the temptation to “rough up” the rootball. 

Rhus is a widespread genus that provides nectar and pollen in the spring with its flowers, and also hold their berries for most of the winter. Most species will take advantage of rainfall patterns and produce flushes of flowers in other seasons, and some species seem to always have a crop of fruits on them. Their shrubby nature makes them excellent plants for birds (providing a protected nesting location). 

Sumacs like this little leaf sumac (Rhus microphylla) have hairy, glandular, red fruits that birds love.

Sumacs like this little leaf sumac (Rhus microphylla) have hairy, glandular, red fruits that birds love.

The nectar rich flowers are beneficial for nectar-feeding insects, especially native bees, the fruits are consumed by fruit-eating birds and mammals, and the seeds are also consumed by various species. Thus these plants give a lot to wildlife.

Avoid planting this species, African Sumac (Rhus lancea)

Avoid planting this species, African Sumac (Rhus lancea)

There is at least one Rhus you should stay away from. And unfortunately some nurseries still sell this species: African sumac (Rhus lancea) is a noxious invasive tree that is starting to creep into our flora. Aside from the fact that displaces native plants, and forms solid stands of itself, as a landscape plant it’s just a crappy tree. The plant constantly drops leaves, year round. That wouldn’t be such an issue if it didn’t also constantly drop seed. People who plant this species in their yard always regret it because whatever pots you have nearby will be growing baby African sumacs. And if you don’t get them soon enough, they root very deeply and are hard to remove. If you want a nice tree with a dense canopy, there are many native and non-native trees that will suit your needs. Avoid planting this species.

These are the Rhus species that we tend to carry though some are more available than others.

Sumacs belong to the cashew family (Anachardiaceae). This family includes about 83 genera with about 860 known species. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, T. rydbergii) is famous for its contact dermatitis and is native to our region, but so are several other closely related plants with edible fruits. Other famous anacards include cashew (Anacardium occidentale), mango (Mangifera indica), pistachio (Pistache vera), and several ornamental shrubs and trees like Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), and pepper tree (Schinus mollle).

Katherine Gierlach