With autumn's arrival, some plants retire quietly into winter. After a final exhalation, their leaves gradually give up their green lifeblood as they gravitate to the ground. Other plants flaunt their foliage to an autumn audience. Their leaves shriek in a dizzying carousel of orange, red and yellow as they swirl around limbs and legs.
Our native sumacs do not wait in the wings of an autumn theater but steal the show with their commanding-colored costumes. Sumacs also are desirable landscape plants due to their adaptability to various soils and sun exposures. Most send up baby plants nearby, so give them plenty of room to move or dig up the babies for other parts of the yard.
At first, the name sumac may conjure up nightmares of itchy blisters and calamine lotion baths. However, there is no need to fear an itchy sumac attack from landscape sumacs.
Fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, is 2 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. All sumacs need room to move. As with many of the sumacs fragrant sumac makes an excellent ground cover or mass planting as it produces suckers to stabilize berms and banks. The three-parted summer leaves are a pleasant blue-green. The glossy leaves turn a brilliant orange-red to reddish purple in fall. On the female plants, the small yellow flowers and hairy red fruits are delicately ornamental. The smaller-sized cultivar Gro-Low reaches 2 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
Flameleaf sumac, also known as shining sumac, Rhus copallina, has few rivals for magnificent fall color. Flameleaf can reach 20 to 30 feet tall and just as wide. The shiny dark green leaves are made up of nine to 21 leaflets. The flowers and fruits add some ornament as yellow, feathery spikes in late summer turn to crimson fruits in fall. The lustrous dark green leaves live up to their name as they turn crimson-red and scarlet in autumn. The cultivar Creel's Quintet has only five leaflets and grows 5 to 8 feet tall.
Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is commonly available in the landscape industry. Its 15 to 25 feet width is equal to or greater than its height. It is adaptable but does prefer a well-drained site. A large colony of its twisted stems is quite picturesque in winter. The stems are very hairy, giving rise to the common name of staghorn.
Both the male and female flower spikes (borne on separate plants) are attractive. Female plants produce showy spikes of fruit clusters on their branch tips. The fuzzy dark red berries are a good winter identification feature until the birds strip them off as a mid-winter snack. The complete leaf may be up to 2 feet long but is divided into as many as 30 4-inch-long leaflets. The fall color is fluorescent scarlet orange. Cultivars Laciniata and Dissecta have extra divisions in the leaves to create a fine, ferny texture. Tiger eye sumac (R. typhina Bailtiger) is a marvelous chartreuse-leafed selection.
Smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, is certainly beautiful in fall as it blankets hillsides in colors of red and yellow. It can get 10 to 15 feet tall and looks similar in shape and appearance to staghorn sumac, except smooth sumac does not have the hairy stems. Unfortunately, smooth sumac is ecologically ugly as it proves that even native plants can be weedy.
It reseeds and the discarded stems root as it travels unabated through wild and manicured landscapes. As an ecological thug, it suckers and sprouts everywhere. Run far and run fast from this one or it may blanket your house. Confusingly, it also has a Laciniata cultivar.
Sumacs can get a few insect and disease problems that can be remedied with periodic rejuvenation by pruning plants to the ground in late winter. If you have the space, sumacs are worth the price of admission.
Sandra Mason is unit educator, horticulture and environment, for the University of Illinois Extension, Champaign County. Contact her with questions or comments at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, call 333-7672, email firstname.lastname@example.org or fax 333-7683.