Is Sumac Garden Worthy?

Rhus (Sumac) gets little attention from gardeners, but the species does offer some real gems that are especially well-suited for the landscape. While most of the species in the genera are not showy enough to suit the typical gardener, many of the plants have outstanding attributes such as showy fall color, drought tolernace, showy fruit and the ability to thrive with neglect .

The fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, is the most commonly grown species. The cultivar ‘Gro-Lo’ is a favorite of landscape architects. It is a hardy (zone 3-8), low growing plant (24”), with glossy leaves and superb orange to red fall color. Its dense, suckering habit make it an excellent ground cover especially for slopes and other difficult sites.

Rhus typhina, the Staghorn sumac, is perhaps the best ornamental shrub of the group. The plant has fuzzy stems (like a stag’s horn), great orange to deep red fall color and attractive red seed heads. I learned this plant as a young boy when my dad tought me how to make staghorn lemonade with its fruit. It’s a native shrub that is commonly found along highways forming dense clumps. At 70 mph, it's easy to see that each clump differs genetically in size, fall color, and fruit. Unfortunately, as it is a suckering plant, most gardeners don’t have the room for a clump in their garden. There are several excellent cultivars that are garden worthy; ‘Disecta’ aka ‘Laciniata’ is grown for its attractive lacy cut leaves. Tiger Eyes or ‘Bailtiger’, is a yellow leafed selection of ‘Disecta’. This plant has all the wonderful attributes of the species but with bright yellow leaves that gives summer-long interest.

Staghorn Sumac

Rhus copallina is commonly known as Flameleaf or Shining Sumac. This native shrub can reach upwards of twenty feet in height. The cultivar Prairie Flame aka ‘Morton’ is a compact selection that remains under seven feet tall. It has exceptionally brilliant, red fall color. Over the last few years I have been selecting plants that are as short as 12 inches tall. I think these may have great landscape potential. I have also heard of a cultivar with dark purple leaves called ‘Lanham’s Purple.’ While I have never seen this plant, I think it may have garden potential.

Shining Sumac

Rhus chinensis (pictured above) is a sight to see both in flower and in fall color. It is one of the larger species, forming a small tree up to 24’ in height. Like all the other Rhus mentioned here, this is a suckering plant so use good judgment when choosing a place to spot Rhus chinensis. This species has perhaps the showiest of flowers. It has large, 6-10” creamy-white panicles in late summer, that mature into orange red fruit.

As Rhus are suckering plants that are propagated by root cuttings, they will never be commonly grown. This does not mean they are not worth growing. I saw wonderful mixed shrub planting at a hotel in Portland, Oregon that was simply spectacular. I was instantly impressed with the creativity of the designer because he/she incorporated Rhus typhina into the design and pulled it off. All of these Rhus species have a lot to offer in terms of drought tolerance, fall color, fruit and fall color that can be utilized by creative designers. So yes, in my opinion Rhus is garden worthy.
What do you think?


  1. Anonymous11:46 AM

    Isn't this story strangely similar to the story on page 101 of the January 2008 edition of NMPro?

  2. I just got my MNPro and looked up the article by Paul. It is similar, but he goes into more depth..

    Anyone who's interested reading Paul Cappiello's Rhus article can find it at

  3. Anonymous4:04 PM

    do shumacs have flowers

  4. They do have flowers. Some species are showier than others. The Picture is Rhus chinensis which has very showy flowers. Most of the other I talk about are not so showy.

  5. Annette7:44 PM

    My Mom and I live in Portland, Oregon, and we see many different varieties of the Sumac, as well as it growing along the roads. My Mom has some in her yard and it has spectacular fall color. What we love about it is that it grows no matter what - bad soil, no problem! Not enough water, no problem! I'm planning on putting one the front of my apartment where it won't have much water or very good soil, but will look nice all the time. My only question: what it the best time to plant it?

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