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You have probably noticed them in early fall along roadsides in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. The red, orange and purple color of the sumacs usually begins to show up earlier than others and it usually hangs around a little longer, too.
You would be hard-pressed to come up with a plant genus that is better for fall color than the sumacs. Whether you’re a flameleaf, staghorn or smooth sumac, fall color is your middle name.
There are about a half a dozen sumac species that are well suited to Kentuckiana, in fact many of them are native to the southeastern United States. Rhus glabra, or the smooth sumac, is seen along our interstate highways and is notable this time of the year as a patchwork of yellow and red. Like most of the sumacs, the smooth sumac is a vigorous plant that colonizes quickly and makes for an excellent ground cover plant on slopes or hard to maintain areas.
For most of the sumacs the foliage is distinctive; each leaf is comprised of several feather-shaped leaflets attached to the same leaf stem...the technical term is compound pinnate. The smooth sumac has 15 to 30 leaflets on each leaf so it can be described as lush in appearance. In early summer yellowish panicle blooms appear followed by red conical drupes on the female plants. The blooms are nice but the fruit is better (not to eat, however); and the fall color is just out of this world. There is a cultivated variety of the smooth sumac called ‘Laciniata’ that has finely cut foliage, which makes it a better choice for the neatly cultivated garden.
My two favorite sumacs are the staghorn, Rhus typhina, and the flameleaf sumac, Rhus copallina. The staghorn sumac is so-called because of the velvety, bright red fruit that appears in late summer...it looks like a young stag’s horn. The rest of the plant has a velvety sheen, too, from the young leaves, the new growth, buds and fruit. The staghorn has 2-foot long leaves made up of 15-25 leaflets and because of its suckering habit it should be given some space to grow.
The flameleaf sumac is similar in appearance and habit to the staghorn but what distinguishes this species is its finer foliage. The narrow leaflets are a lustrous green that turn crimson red to maroon in the fall. The other common name for this sumac is the shining sumac because of the glossy appearance of the foliage. The fruit is not as showy as the staghorn but the appeal is the foliage and the fact that it blooms a little later in the season extending garden interest.
The Chinese sumac, Rhus chinensis, blooms late in the summer season. Fleecy white panicles are covering the bright green leaves of this small tree. And since it likes dry, infertile soil, it was quite content this year. As the days shorten this little tree’s leaves will begin to drain of chlorophyll to reveal the reds, oranges and yellows that are hidden beneath.
The fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, stands out from the other species because it does not have the distinctive compound pinnate foliage. Instead the fragrant sumac has foliage that looks like that of poison ivy. The fragrant sumac is a tough suckering shrub that doesn’t mind it hot and dry. I saw the cultivar ‘Gro-Low’ in a street planting between the sidewalk and the street in downtown Chicago so it likely doesn’t mind a little car exhaust, either. True to its middle name, the fragrant sumac has great fall color and can be planted in full-sun or part-shade.
All of the sumacs are adaptable to most soil conditions, except for excessivley wet. With the exception of the fragrant sumac, most prefer a sunnier location to maximize bloom and fall color. If you are looking for a ground cover, erosion control, a naturalized hedge or something you won’t have to worry about, look into one of the sumacs. If you have a small space go with the Chinese sumac, you have space go with any of the others.