Plant Sumac Trees for Fall Foliage

The Underrated Element of New England Fall Foliage

Sumac trees
Sumac colorful foliage. mbc-2016/Pixabay/CC By 0

When we think of New England fall foliage, red maple trees come immediately to mind, not sumac trees. A single majestic maple bears thousands of colorful fall leaves. By comparison, sumac is small; indeed, depending upon whom you ask, it is considered either a small tree or tall shrub. But pound for pound (or should I say, "leaf for leaf"?), it can hold its own with any tree for fall foliage.

Some of the best fall foliage spectacles I have witnessed in New England have consisted of dense stands of sumac trees covering a slope in a sea of red.

The reputation of these delightful plants, however, has been smeared through their association with their nefarious cousin -- poison sumac.

Isn't Sumac Poisonous? And Doesn't It Spread?

"Poison sumac." The words are mouthed with such dread that simply mentioning them will keep some people out of the woods, even during New England's brilliant fall foliage season. But while poison sumac causes a severe skin irritation when touched and should, indeed, be avoided, do not be hasty about trying to eradicate that stand of non-poison sumac trees on your property.

Sumac trees just might be your best source for the type of fall foliage people associate with the New England region, a fact known by the nurseries that sell this "weed" to those seeking a brilliant autumn display (photo). As we illustrate in the gallery of poison sumac pictures, the easiest way to distinguish poison sumac from non-poison sumac is to compare the berries.

Some will complain that sumac is aggressive. Fair enough. It does spread over time by suckering to form a colony. But you will not bemoan its spread if:

  1. You like the color it brings to your yard.
  2. You have the space to accommodate it.

If, in fact, you do not have the required space, opt for the Tiger Eyes shrub (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') sold at garden centers.

This cultivar of staghorn sumac (see below) is a dwarf, reaching a maximum of 6 feet tall x 6 feet wide. Its coloration is quite different from that of the wild sumacs. The lime-colored leaves are quite attractive. But the best show is reserved for fall, when the foliage picks up some hints of red or orange. While it tends not to sucker as much as the staghorn type in some areas, be aware that there is no iron-clad guarantee that it won't spread. So check first with your local county extension.

Wild Sumacs

Staghorn is one of the better-known wild sumac trees. Although native to New England, it is a tough plant that can be grown in other regions as well. And almost every region of the U.S. has some variety of sumac native to it. This series provides photos and descriptions of trees ranging from towering oaks to the much smaller Japanese dogwood trees.

Fall foliage display is not a matter merely of personal enjoyment. If your home is on the real estate market, you need to be aware that sometimes property value can increase significantly (fifteen percent is the figure often cited) with the right landscaping. Landscaping is an important aspect of home improvement. Potential buyers looking at real estate during the autumn months cannot help but be influenced by landscaping with dynamic fall foliage.

There are many kinds of non-poison sumac trees. Mention of two common varieties native to New England will suffice as examples. Staghorn trees (Rhus typhina (hirta)) are a relatively tall variety (reaches 18 feet to 35 feet). Staghorn derives its name from the hairy texture of its branches, reminiscent of the velvety feel of deer antlers. The smooth sumac tree (Rhus glabra) is another common variety; it attains a height of about 10 feet. Both provide striking fall foliage.

The sumac trees that some of us have scorned all our lives, through their association with poison sumac, deserve a closer look -- and not only for the fall foliage they provide. For, historically, they have been more than just something pretty to look at, as we'll see on Page 2....

First, some identification is in order. It is easy to distinguish poison sumac trees from their non-poison sumac relatives, if you pick the right time of year. The time to make the identification is in the fall when the berries have ripened to maturity. The plants have white berries in autumn, and the berries hang down. Non-poison sumac trees bear red berries in the autumn, and their berries grow upright.

In addition, poison sumac plants grow in swamps, whereas non-poison sumac plants prefer precisely the opposite habitat -- soils that are well-drained. If you don't hang around swamps much, your chances of encountering poison sumac are pretty slim. It should be noted that by "non-poison" I allude to an absence of skin irritation from contact with the plant, but no part of the sumac plant should be ingested by anyone not thoroughly informed on the subject.

So don't run away scared at the mention of "sumac." Poison sumac is in a distinct minority amongst the sumacs. The remaining sumac trees (as in the picture to your right) not only produce no poison but provide spectacular autumn color.

It can be rather surprising to learn that all the sumacs (both poison sumac and non-poison sumac trees), along with poison ivy (for photos of which, see my "Pictures of Poison Ivy" gallery) and poison oak, belong to the cashew family (Anacardiaceae).

Also in this family, in addition to cashews themselves, are pistachios and mangos. All three of these foods produce allergic reactions in some people -- a fact that is perhaps easier to understand, once their connection with poison sumac is noted! "The raw cashew nut is enclosed in a tough, leathery shell that contains caustic, toxic substances including cardol and anacardic acid" and must be processed before it becomes edible, states the Living and Raw Foods Web site.

Even the berries of sumac (the non-poison sumac varieties, that is, with which the remainder of this article deals exclusively) have been used as a food product in a number of cultures. Floridata, an online plant database, points out that Native Americans made a drink from sumac tree seeds "which tastes like lemonade and has a high vitamin C content." As Gernot Katzer remarks on one of his "Spice Pages," sumac tree seeds contain citric and ascorbic acids. It is these acids that furnish them with the tanginess by which they can serve as a citrus-substitute. Katzer also mentions the ancient Romans' use of sumac tree berries to produce sour accents in their cuisine. But sumac's use as a spice is not relegated to the distant past. It is also used in modern Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine. For instance, in Greek restaurants, it's the spice sumac" that is sometimes used in wraps.

But the use of sumac trees has not been limited to the landscaping and culinary spheres. "Sumac bark and fruit are high in tannin, and were once used to tan leather," says Floridata. The wood harvested from larger sumacs is even prized by some woodturners. "Never available commercially, you’ll have to harvest your own but you’ll be rewarded with an exceptionally attractive wood that will season easily with a minimum of problems.

A carver’s delight due to its softness, it also behaves well on the lathe," writes Don Eylat, who composes a "Wood of the Month" column for "Tidewater Turner's of Virginia."

To learn about more uses of sumac (other than poison sumac, which you should avoid), plus its one drawback, continue on to Page 3....

We began by considering how sumac trees can transplant a bit of New England fall foliage to regions far away from New England. Below we will see that cultivating sumac in the landscape can enhance your winter scenery as well.

Winter scenery with snow needs to be punctuated by color to hold our interest, and sumac's seed-tuft will provide some color. More importantly, it also attracts wild birds, whose presence greatly enhances the color and variety of winter scenery.

Increasingly, homeowners are understanding the importance of achieving four seasons of visual interest on the landscape; adequate winter scenery is perhaps the most difficult to achieve since vegetation is more robust in the other three seasons.

Fall scenery. Winter scenery. With so many good points in its favor, are there any reasons then, you may ask, for treating sumac trees as "weeds" to be eradicated? I can think of only one. Like Japanese knotweed, sumac trees thrive on ground disturbed by humans. That is, it will grow even where you don't want it to grow in your yard.

Winter Scenery and Sumac

Sumac trees spread via rhizomes under the soil, as does Japanese knotweed. On land where the roots from trees long-since cut have decomposed in the soil, an open invitation exists for Japanese knotweed and sumac tree rhizomes to spread like crazy there, since impediments to their movement have been eliminated (they'll get plenty of sun too, which they both love).

For this reason, both sumac trees and Japanese knotweed have been used in erosion control projects. But that's where the similarity ends. A stand of dead Japanese knotweed does nothing for winter scenery, as the ugly dried canes merely litter the landscape; whereas sumac contributes something positive to winter scenery.

If you have only a small plot of land and wish to cultivate an extensive garden, and if you don't want to devote much time to restricting the spread of invasive plants, then growing sumac trees as an ornamental for its fall foliage and winter scenery potential is probably not for you. If you need to get rid of sumac trees, spray them with Ortho's Brush-B-Gon. Alternatively, you can cut the trunks and daub Roundup onto the stumps.

But if you have a large plot on which to garden, or if you are willing to invest the time to keep sumac's rhizomes contained, the plant offers several advantages. Particular varieties of sumac trees are indigenous to a number of regions, both in the Old World and in the New. Growing native plants always carries with it certain advantages over growing plants that "have their roots" elsewhere, if you will. Natives, for instance, tend to be drought-resistant. And why shouldn't they be? Surviving summers stingy with rain is part of their heritage in that particular region. Nor do you have to worry about soil amendments or the pH level since, after all, their ancestors thrived on the native soil just as it was. And, of course, they're often free.

The advantages of growing sumac trees, however, go beyond these considerations.

As mentioned at the outset, the fall foliage they provide is unsurpassed. Nor is their autumn color display limited to their leaves, for the tuft atop the plant that holds sumac's berries is red and fluffy, increasing the plant's visual appeal. An added bonus is the fact that this seed-tuft remains on the sumac trees all winter, attracting colorful wild birds to northern landscapes greatly in need of such cheerful winter scenery.

Wild Birds: Winged Winter Scenery

Birdwatchers take note: sumac tree seeds are an important source of bird food, precisely because they do stay on the plant long enough to be part of your winter scenery. This makes them an excellent emergency food for birds throughout the winter and beyond. I have witnessed bluebirds, black-capped chickadees and robins feeding on sumac seeds in early spring in New England when there is little else for them to eat.

Gary Schneider of the MacPhail Woods Ecological Forestry Project on Prince Edward Island, Canada lists some additional birds known to eat sumac trees' seeds: ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, eastern phoebe, common crow, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, wood thrush, hermit thrush and European starling. Schneider also notes staghorn sumac's use as a windbreak and adds, "Since it is resistant to salt, this is one of the best native shrubs for protection along shorelines or highways."

So the versatile sumac trees' benefits go beyond fall foliage and winter scenery. Before eradicating it from your landscape, we would recommend granting sumac a stay of execution while you ponder its virtues for a while. During the reprieve, sumac just might win you over.