GREEN THOUGHTS: Savoring sumac

Sumac (Rhus typhina Laciniata). Photo by David Chinery

HYDRANGEAS ARE IN, yews are out. Interest in vegetable gardening swings with the tides of economics and pandemics. In the hippest neighborhoods, spider plants in macrame hangers have even made a comeback. Public opinion on native plants is on the way up, too. In my collegiate plant identification classes, our professor would say “it’s just a native,” somewhat disparagingly, when we looked at an eastern red cedar or tuliptree. Today, those on the front of one of the trendiest gardening curves are going native and banning non-indigenous plants entirely, or are trying to plant gardens which are composed largely of native plants.

Some natives, such as bottlebrush buckeye and the sugar maple, are attractive and easy to invite into your personal landscape. Others, like poison ivy, would only be employed in the garden of a sadist. I’m interested in the plants which people deem in-betweeners, such as sumac. In England years ago, I was approached by a nicely dressed gentleman, who guessed I was an American. “Our favorite plant comes from your country,” he said. I guessed it must be the giant redwood, a certain hybrid tea rose, or perhaps a rare orchid. “No,” he replied, “it is sumac. It has the most magnificent fall color and beautiful fruit!” Our new love of natives hasn’t discovered sumac yet, so I’m here to promote its case.

Locally, sumac species such as staghorn (Rhus typhina) and smooth (Rhus glabra) grow wild in hedgerows, right-of-ways, and abandoned fields. This “wildness” may be part of the discord, since sumac defies pruning into meatballs or hockey pucks and will always look shaggy and primordial.

Sumac supporters point to cultivars with dissected, lacey foliage that is prettier than the common types, such as Rhus typhina ‘Dissecta’ or ‘Laciniata,’ both with finely cut leaves. I’ve had ‘Laciniata’ in my garden for decades, and found it not wildly rampant from seed or sprouts. While it has moved 15 feet from its planting spot, seeking more sun, the very few unwanted runners have been easy to remove.

“But it is poisonous!” the sumac-phobes will proclaim. Nonsense. These sumacs are fine to touch. In fact, poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) grows primarily in bogs, has white (not red) berries, is closely related to poison ivy, and is not common locally. Once again, the name is the problem, not the plant. Perhaps sumac needs a new image and a re-boot, a process which succeeds with some politicians and certain consumer brands.

Sumac is useful, too. Legendary Master Gardener Winnie Lustenader, an edible wild plant aficionado, offered up a truly delicious lemonade made from sumac berries. Sumac fruits also make excellent fuel for a beekeeper’s smoker, the device used to calm honeybees while prodding around in their hive.

In closing, I must quote the famous plantsman Michael Dirr, who opined in his Manual Of Woody Landscape Plants, “Europeans have long appreciated Rhus glabra and Rhus typhina. Perhaps, someday, Americans will become more introspective and appreciative of our rich woody plant heritage.”

To contact David Chinery, the horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

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