When you hear the word Sumac, do you immediately think of the poisonous kind that results in those horrifying welts that itch and burn for days? If that’s the case, you’re in for a treat! Poison Sumac may be a hiker’s nightmare but its kinder, gentler cousins, like Tiger’s Eye Sumac and Smooth Sumac, are colorful, completely benign and downright gorgeous.
Native to North America, Sumac is a wonderful addition to your autumn yard. Its bold, deeply divided leaves lose their summertime green and burst into glorious shades of scarlet, gold, and orange once fall arrives. In fact, this plant is so lovely and so easy to care for that you may never want a garden without one again.
In this Spotlight series, we showcase seasonal plants, shrubs and trees that bring year round interest, with a unique and extra special appeal during their peak season. Today we’re highlighting ornamental Sumac, one of the most brilliant and bold plants that you can count on for spectacular fall foliage.
NOT Your Worst Nightmare
Yes, the poisonous kind can be a real season-killer. The good news is that with a little bit of attention, you can tell the difference. The poisonous kind has pale yellow or white berries, a red stem and smooth leaves. The garden-friendly kind has bright red berries that look more like a cone-shaped flower, a brownish-purple stem and jagged leaves.
Sumac is a favorite of wildlife, too. It will attract bees and butterflies to your garden, and if you enjoy birdwatching then this is a must-have plant. Small animals and birds in particular enjoy snacking on the berries, which will make a happy meal for species from warblers to woodpeckers, bluebirds to chickadees.
But perhaps the best difference (besides being harmless!) is that ornamental Sumac is as fun to watch bloom as it is to see it explode into color.
New growth emerges in soothing shades of chartreuse, becoming a cool lemon-lime through spring. Pale yellowish-green flowers appear, and in female plants, those flowers give way to a lovely red, fuzzy fruit, surrounded by deeper yellow leaves in summer.
And of course, you will enjoy the colorful palette of its autumn display. Since leaves do not all change at once, you’ll be treated to a rainbow of reds, greens, yellows and oranges long into the season.
But Sumac’s beauty doesn’t end there, because its berries will last through much of the winter, bringing color and texture to your outdoor space, and providing a much-needed food source for wildlife throughout winter. This is great news if you’re looking to enjoy some color, life and movement during the darkest days.
Care And Maintenance
This eye-catching shrub is stunning all year long, making it ideal as a focal point. It also plays nicely as a backdrop or a border plant in seaside landscapes, cottage gardens, Asian-style gardens and more.
Sumac is available in many different species, but they are all generally very low-maintenance. It will initially thrive in a well-watered environment, but once established, it’s drought resistant and will essentially take care of itself.
Sumac grows best in a well-drained area, but can thrive in just about any soil type, from sandy to rocky and even of the poorest quality. Full sun to partial shade is ideal for most varieties though most will put on a better autumn show of color when grown in full sun.
It doesn’t have any notable pest problems and isn’t susceptible to any major diseases, though it may be affected by leaf spots and powdery mildew in excessively wet conditions. If you notice any gray or white spots, or see small fungus threads, ventilate the soil to head off spreading. If you keep the soil well-drained and water only at the base, being careful to avoid splashing and bruising leaves, you can avoid the problem entirely.
And you won’t have to worry about critters munching on it – serving it up as a snack for wildlife is one of its greatest pleasures!
Why We Love It
As if the color alone wasn’t enough to make you fall in love with this plant, there are plenty of other interesting tidbits to pique your interest. Sumac trunks have pithy, hollow stems that are prized for whittling and are even used to make taps for maple syrup!
Some ornamental species, including Smooth and Fragrant Sumac, produce edible red berries that have historically been eaten raw. Grab a few and pop them into a salad right from your garden. They can also be brewed to make a delicious lemonade. Sumac can be used to make an excellent spice, and believe it or not, you can even peel and eat young twigs if you want a unique and crunchy snack.
Since early days, the twigs of Sumac have been used to weave baskets and even blankets. And the berries, along with crushed leaves, twigs and roots, produce a surprising and delightful array of natural pigments and dyes. That makes Sumac not only a coveted garden prize, but a boon for adventurous crafters.
From berries to bold colors, its attractiveness to wildlife and its visual appeal in any garden, Sumac should be at the top of any autumn must-have list. If you’re interested in a bold and beautiful fall garden, or want to know more about which plants can bring you four seasons of joy, contact us for a consultation. We’re here to turn your yard into the outdoor space of your dreams.