How to Grow and Care for The Smooth Sumac

Smooth sumac growing with yellow, red and orange leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is a deciduous shrub or small tree with a moderate growth rate that forms an impressive display during bloom. In the spring and early summer, the plant produces yellowish-green flowers in upright cone-shaped panicles up to ten inches long. The female plant then produces hairy pyramidal clusters of drupes that ripen to a bright red in the autumn. Despite the tree's beauty, the smooth sumac is considered invasive and can spread rapidly and cause damage to surrounding vegetation if not carefully maintained.

Common Name Smooth sumac
Botanical Name Rhus glabra
Family Anacardiaceae
Plant Type  Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 9-15 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial sun
Soil Type Average, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Yellow, green
Hardiness Zones 3-9 (USDA)
Native Area  North America

Smooth Sumac Care

The smooth sumac is a pioneer plant, meaning it grows in soils and locations other plants do not find hospitable. Rhus glabra also invite beneficial insects to their flowers in abundance and are great for pollinator gardens. They are host to numerous species of Hairstreak butterflies. It grows best in well-drained soil with full sun. It benefits from light pruning and can be propagated with cuttings or seeds.

Smooth sumacs don't need to be overwintered and bloom intensely in the spring and summer. It is susceptible to several pests and fungal diseases, but no more so than any other species of sumac.

Warning

Sumacs are invasive and can cause damage to the environment. You shouldn't plant smooth sumacs in flower beds.

Smooth sumac branch with red and green leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Smooth sumac branch c=with red leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Smooth sumac shrub trunk in front of yellow, orange and green leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Smooth sumac shrub with green leaves and red flower clusters

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Smooth sumac bare branches with red flower clusters

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Smooth sumac grows best in full sun and partial shade. Blooms will be more profuse in full sun, and fall colors will be more vibrant.

Soil

Smooth sumacs are adaptable to many soil types, as long as it is well-drained. The sumac is adaptable to a range of pH levels as well. 

Water

Until the shrub establishes itself, you should irrigate it regularly by providing a deep drenching watering about once a week during the first growing season. The tree does well in dry to average moisture areas; once established, no watering other than rainwater is necessary. It is somewhat drought tolerant.

Temperature and Humidity

The smooth sumac can tolerate a wide range of temperature and humidity. This includes temperate and subtropical regions. Still, smooth sumacs grow best in warm, humid environments.

Fertilizer

There is no need to fertilize smooth sumacs. It grows adequately in poor soil without any amendments. 

Pruning

Prune your smooth sumac in early spring by removing any dead, dying, or diseased branches with pruning shears. Light pruning promotes healthy growth. You can also remove suckers using loppers by cutting them to the ground or pruning 1/4 of the tree's oldest branches.

Propagating Smooth Sumac

You can propagate smooth sumac in the early winter using root cuttings. Propagating this way has the highest success rate. Here's how:

  1. Take a 6 inch cutting from a healthy smooth sumac tree.
  2. Fill a growing tray or pot with loose soil mixed with sand or perlite, and plant the cutting about halfway deep.
  3. Place the growing sapling in a bright spot with a temperature between 43˚F to 53˚F.
  4. Keep the soil moist but not wet.
  5. Roots will form in several weeks.

How to Grow Smooth Sumac From Seed

You can propagate smooth sumac in the early winter using root cuttings. Propagating this way has the highest success rate. Here's how:

  1. Take a 6 inch cutting from a healthy, smooth sumac tree.
  2. Fill a growing tray or pot with loose soil mixed with sand or perlite, and plant the cutting about halfway deep.
  3. Place the growing sapling in a bright spot with a temperature between 43˚F to 53˚F.
  4. Keep the soil moist but not wet.
  5. Roots will form in several weeks.

Overwintering

Smooth sumacs are very hardy trees and don't require any overwintering measures. During the winter, the trees go into self-protective dormancy and will not suffer from low temperatures. However, saplings grown in pots should be placed indoors during the winter and insulated with fleece or styrofoam under the container.

Common Pests & Diseases

Smooth sumacs are susceptible to pests and diseases common to all sumac trees. This includes mealybugs and caterpillars. If you notice eggs on smooth sumac leaves, remove them with your fingers, crush them, and spray the tree with an insecticide. Smooth sumacs can develop powdery mildew, which you can help prevent with good ventilation and consistently moist soil.

How to Get Smooth Sumac to Bloom

Your smooth sumac will bloom throughout spring and summer, forming large leaves and clusters of five green, yellow, or white flowers. The flower has hairy, pointed lobes and stems that will become smoother with time. Female flower clusters also produce drupes that resemble berries. When the leaves are crushed, the smell is strong and sometimes unpleasant. You may lightly prune the tree and moisten the soil to encourage healthy bloom. Pay attention to potential diseases or pests that may hinder growth.

Not only are these very attractive against the bare branches of the shrub, but they are also a feast for birds and other wildlife over winter when food sources become scarce. It feeds around 300 different bird species.

FAQ
  • How long do smooth sumacs live?

    Smooth sumacs can live between 20 and 30 years.

  • Can smooth sumac be used in cooking?

    Smooth sumac fruit makes a tart drink when pressed and mixed with water and a sweetener. The drink has been consumed by Indigenous peoples for centuries.

  • Does smooth sumac have medicinal purposes?

    Smooth sumac has many medicinal purposes, including blister treatment, antidiarrheal, asthma treatment, and mouthwash.