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Rhus

Sumac
Anacardiaceae
Deciduous, Evergreen, Shrubs, Trees

Of the ornamental sumacs, deciduous kinds are extremely hardy to cold; they are noted for brilliant fall leaf color and, on female plants, showy clusters of (usually) red fruits that attract birds. They tend to produce suckers, especially if their roots are disturbed by cultivation. Evergreen species are less hardy. All sumac species thrive in almost any soil, as long as drainage is good (soggy soils can kill them).

Poison oak and poison ivy were once members of the genus Rhus, but they have been reclassified as Toxicodendron.

Rhus aromatica

Deciduous shrub. Native to Eastern North America. Fast-growing plant to 3–5 ft. tall, sprawling 5 ft. or wider. Three-leafleted leaves to 3 in. long are fragrant when brushed against or crushed. Foliage turns red in fall. Tiny yellowish flowers in spring; small red fruit. Coarse bank cover or groundcover for poor or dry soils.

‘Gro-Low’ grows to 3 ft. tall and 6–8 ft. wide.

Rhus glabra

Deciduous shrub or tree. Native to much of North America. Upright grower to 10 ft., sometimes treelike to 20 ft. Spreads widely by suckers; in the wild, forms large patches. Looks much like R. typhina and has the same garden uses, but usually grows lower and does not have velvety branches. Leaves are divided into 11 to 23 tooth-edged, rather narrow, 2–5-in.-long leaflets that are deep green above, whitish beneath; foliage turns scarlet in fall. Inconspicuous flowers in early summer are followed by showy clusters of scarlet fruits that remain on bare branches well into winter.

Rhus integrifolia
Rhus integrifolia

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Rhus integrifolia

Evergreen shrub. Native to coastal Southern California, Channel Islands, and Baja California. Generally grows 3–10 ft. tall and wide; rarely tree-like to 30 ft. Leathery dark green leaves are oval to nearly round, 1–2 1/2 in. long. White or pinkish flowers in dense clusters from midwinter to spring (sometimes from early winter into summer). Clustered small, flattish fruits are reddish and gummy, with tart pulp that can be used to flavor drinks, hence the common name.

Grows best near the coast, where established plants need no irrigation. Makes a wonderful groundcover on rocky slopes exposed to salt-laden winds; one plant eventually sprawls over a wide area, even down cliffs. In less windy places, use as a tall screen or background plant. Excellent for espalier against fences and walls. Can be trimmed to make a dense formal hedge and maintained just under a foot wide. Useful in erosion control. Highly susceptible to verticillium wilt.

Rhus lancea

Evergreen tree. Native to Africa. Slow grower to 20–30 ft. tall and 20–35 ft. wide. Open, spreading habit; graceful, weeping outer branchlets. Dark green leaves are divided into three willow-like, 4–5-in.-long leaflets. Inconspicuous early spring flowers are followed by clusters of pea-size yellow or red fruit that can make a mess on pavement. This species can be trained to a single trunk or allowed to grow as a multitrunked tree somewhat resembling olive (Olea). Makes a good specimen, background plant, or screen; can also be clipped into a hedge.

Rhus microphylla

Deciduous shrub. Native to southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Grows to 8 ft. (possibly 15 ft.) tall and 12 ft. wide. Leaves are divided featherwise into five to nine small (less than 1/2 in. long) leaflets. Clusters of little white flowers appear in spring before leafout; these are followed in early summer by tiny, hairy orange or red fruit.

Rhus ovata

Evergreen shrub. Native to dry slopes away from the coast in Southern California and Baja California. Upright or spreading habit. Typically grows 4–10 ft. tall and wide, though it can be shorter or taller. Takes well to pruning. Glossy, leathery leaves are 1 1/2–3 in. long, somewhat trough-shaped, pointed at tips. Dense clusters of white or pinkish spring flowers are followed by small, reddish, hairy fruit coated with a sugary secretion.

Same landscape uses as R. integrifolia but for inland areas rather than the seacoast. Rarely bothered by pests or diseases.

Rhus trilobata

Deciduous shrub. Native from Illinois westward to Texas and California, north to Washington. Similar in most details to R. aromatica, but most people find the scent of the bruised leaves unpleasant. Clumping habit makes it a natural low hedge; also good for erosion control. Brilliant yellow to red fall color.

Rhus typhina
Rhus typhina

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Rhus typhina

Deciduous shrub or tree. Native to eastern North America, this upright grower reaches 15–30 ft. tall, spreading much wider by suckers. Very similar to R. glabra, but the branches have a velvety coat of short brown hairs—much like antlers of a deer “in velvet.” Leaves are divided into 11 to 31 toothed, 5-in.-long leaflets; foliage is deep green above, grayish beneath, turns yellow orange to rich red in fall. Blooms in early summer, bearing 4–8-in.-long clusters of tiny greenish blossoms followed by clusters of fuzzy crimson fruits that hang on all winter, gradually turning brown. 

‘Laciniata’ is a female selection with deeply cut leaflets; it grows 10–12 ft. tall. ‘Tiger Eyes’ is also dissected, but golden, growing about 6 ft. tall and wide.

Both R. typhina and R. glabra take extreme heat and cold. Big, divided leaves give tropical effect; fall show is brilliant (for best effect, plant among evergreens). Bare branches make a fine silhouette in winter; fruit is decorative. Both species colonize aggressively by root suckers—a potential problem, especially in small gardens. They grow well when confined to large containers. 

Rhus virens

Evergreen shrub. Native to southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Grows to 12 ft. tall and wide, with dark green leaves divided featherwise into five to nine 1 1/2-in. leaflets. White spring and summer flowers (not showy) are followed by small, berrylike red fruit. Tolerates open shade, making it a good choice for an understory plant beneath tall trees.

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