How to Grow and Care for Fragrant Sumac

A image of fragrant sumac in Joshua Tree National Park.

Jared Quentin/Getty Images

These days people are not just gardening and designing their landscapes with ecology in mind. Every plant chosen has a purpose that is not just aesthetically pleasing but serves an ecologically important function. Rhus aromatica, or fragrant sumac, is one of these plants that supply form and function and is readily available in its native form and several cultivated varieties. 

Fragrant sumac will not win all the awards for the most beautiful shrub, but it is not unattractive, especially in the fall when its foliage becomes colorful and bright red berries are produced.   It excels throughout the year in its ability to sustain pollinators and wildlife, control erosion, and have almost zero serious pests and disease issues. A native with these traits makes planting fragrant sumac a no-brainer in a place that might need some erosion control or just some fall interest. 

 Common Name  Fragrant sumac
 Botanical Name  Rhus aromatica
 Family  Anacardiaceae
 Plant Type  Deciduous shrub
Mature Size  3-5 ft. tall, creeping
Sun Exposure  Full to part sun
Soil Type  Adaptable
Soil pH  4.5 to 8.0
Bloom Time  March, April
Flower Color Inconspicuous, yellow
Hardiness Zones  3-9 (USDA)
Native Area Southern Canada to the Southern USA

Fragrant Sumac Care

People often ask about plants that need little care, and the fragrant sumac is one of those plants. It will require some yearly pruning, especially if it is going to be used as hedging, and might benefit from some supplemental fertilizer, but it is a very low-care plant, which is just one of the reasons people love this species.  

Following just a few normal care guidelines will help ensure your fragrant sumac remains happy and healthy, giving you and all your native pollinators pleasure for years to come.

Light

The wild type of fragrant sumac does best in full sun to part shade and will produce the most noticeable berry production when given full sun. Depending on the cultivar, this can change as some cultivars, such as ‘Gro-Low’ can tolerate full shade. Check which cultivar you are growing and know your end goals before planting. If berry production is not important, but fall color and a pretty ground cover are, you might not necessarily need to consider full sun exposure.

Soil

Fragrant sumacs are highly adaptable to soil type, with the one caveat being drainage. The species does not tolerate standing water well, so the soil must be able to drain adequately. Regarding other normally adverse issues, the fragrant shrugs them off, including overly sandy, rocky, clay, and shallow soil. The fragrant sumac is even resistant to the allelopathic soil surrounding Black walnut trees. Fragrant sumacs are adaptable and handle a wide pH range from 4.5 to 7.5 without any adverse effects. If you're not sure how to check your soil pH it is really easy to do yourself!

 Water

One great use of fragrant sumac is a hedge or ground cover in water-wise gardens. The species is very drought tolerant and holds well to low moisture environments. Even in the early onset, when the plant needs to establish itself, it can deal with less water than most plants. That does not mean it should be neglected completely; like any young plant, it should be watered regularly when newly planted, but fragrant sumac can withstand a bit more time between watering. Once the plant is established, this trait makes it perfect for xeriscaping in moderate climates.

Temperature and Humidity


The fragrant sumac will adapt wildly when it comes to the temperature being able to deal with temperatures ranging from those faced in southern Canada to those in the hot deserts of Arizona. It is a versatile plant that can handle almost any situation save standing water and the humidity of the tropics. Growing it in the suggested USDA hardiness zones of 3-9 will ensure the best chance at a healthy plant.

Fertilizer

Whether or not fragrant sumac needs supplemental fertilizer depends on the soil and the result you are trying to achieve with the plant. If you want it to put out showy autumn foliage and it is a male in terrible soil, then adding fertilizer with an NPK with a high nitrogen value would be beneficial. In contrast, if you want showy berries and flowers to help pollinators and you have female plants, providing a fertilizer with an NPK formula with an abundance of phosphorous would do the trick. Testing the soil is always recommended, though, as you might not have deficiencies in your soil. 

Types of Fragrant Sumac

Besides the wild type, numerous cultivars are available commercially; some are very popular and easy to find. These selections are mostly chosen for form or other aesthetic value but still provide the same ecological value while providing an added ornamental value in a certain niche. 

  • Rhus aromatica ‘Green Globe’: Forms a tight green rounded form with dense interwoven branches. Light berrying but good fall color on the exterior of the shrub. Makes good singular specimen shrubs.
  • Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’: is an extremely popular cultivar in the form of a ground cover that grows to about two feet or so tall. Spreads by suckering. Develops a rich red color in the fall and light fruits. It should be planted in masses for the most stunning effect. Spreads to about 12 feet.
  • Rhus aromatica ‘Konza’: Deep rich orange color and profuse berries; this cultivar can grow up to 12 feet and requires some pruning. It can be used as a hedge if pruned properly but is much more attractive as an eye-catching splash of color for seasonal interest.

Pruning

Pruning is one certain chore even with the relatively carefree fragrant sumac. Sadly the task cannot be avoided, especially if you use fragrant sumac as a hedge. Either way, it's easier to prune this shrub than an oak, where you need to worry about form and proper cut location. 

To prune fragrant sumac, all it takes is a sharp pair of pruners, a good pair of loppers, and some bleach diluted by ten parts water to clean the tools. The best time to do the pruning is in the early spring, before the plant is about to leaf out. The main task here is reduction. You are cutting to reduce the size of the plant. Remove the largest and heaviest canes to the ground. Do this to one to five canes depending on the size of your plant. You can also shear the tips of the plant to reduce the height.

If you want to make a hedge, you will want to thin out the top of the shrub enough, making “holes” to allow sunlight to enter so that foliage buds on interior branches create a thick, lush hedge.  

Propagating Fragrant Sumac

Propagating fragrant sumac is done easily by cutting and transplanting suckers. The hardest method is planting seeds, which requires acid scarification and stratification and a good amount of time, so I’ll talk about cuttings here. 

The easiest way to propagate fragrant sumac is to find a gardening buddy with some and ask them if you can have some! Fragrant sumac suckers like crazy, and they will have plenty of volunteers! After that, it's a matter of just getting a pot and transplanting it into your landscape. 

This is best done with semi-hardwood cuttings taken in summer through fall if you need to take cuttings. You will need vermiculite, a knife, a pot, water, a pencil,  and some rooting hormone. 

  1. Cut a piece of the fragrant sumac beneath a leaf about six-eight inches long below a node.
  2. Remove all leaves. Use your knife to scrape down one side.  
  3. Dip the plant material into the rooting hormone for about 60 seconds. 
  4. Use the pencil to make a hole in the vermiculite. Place the cutting into the hole and tamp down.
  5. Moisten, but do not soak the vermiculite.
  6. Set in a cool dark place, keep moist, and continue monitoring for root growth.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases 

The appeal of the fragrant sumac is that it does not suffer from any serious pests or diseases, and anything that might appear will not threaten its longevity. Usually, the insect issues that appear might be aphids, mites, or scale. Most of these can easily be taken care of with horticultural soap, a strong water spray, or a systemic pesticide treatment available at your local garden center.  One common issue that often concerns people about fragrant sumac but is only an aesthetic issue is nipple gall. This is a symptom of an insect making the fragrant sumac their home. To solve this issue again, treating the plant with a systemic pesticide is an easy fix.

FAQ
  • Are fragrant sumac berries edible?

    Yes, the red berries of the fragrant sumac bush are edible! They taste lemony and can be used to make a lemonade like drink.

  • Why isn't my fragrant sumac bush producing berries?

    Only female plants produce berries or cultivars that self-pollinate. So you most likely have a male plant.

  • How fast does the fragrant sumac grow?

    For a shrub, you won't have to worry about it getting too unruly; it is considered a slow grower, only growing about nine to 12 inches a year.

Article Sources
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  1. Smooth Sumac. Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine.