JoAnne Skelly: The inimitable sumacs

My gardening clothes stink and I’m a happy woman! I’ve been pruning a Rhus trilobata, commonly called skunkbush sumac. Its name tells the story.

I should have left my malodorous garments outside rather than carrying that pungent scent into the house. Oh well, I don’t care. I’m happy because I’m pruning. It takes so little to put a smile on my face.

Sumacs are versatile plants. They are hardy to cold. They are drought-tolerant and thrive in any soil with good drainage. They are bee-friendly and rabbit-resistant. They put out a brilliant fall color display. Unfortunately, most also produce suckers.

Skunkbush is a Nevada native plant. It is deciduous (loses its leaves). It has a clumping habit that I battle each spring by pruning off lower suckers and branches to maintain a Japanese “cloud” effect. I love when I have carefully trimmed it to my preferred flattened umbrella shape.

After many years, it has grown to just over six feet in height with about the same spread. I treat this plant as a specimen focal point in the yard up close to the house. In groups however, it can make a nice low hedge. It is good for erosion control as well. Besides, it turns a lovely red in the fall.

A variety of skunkbush that is especially appealing for the home landscape is the “Gro-Low.” It only grows 18 inches tall, but spreads to eight feet. This drought-tolerant ground cover works in full or part sun. While its foliage is a shiny dark green in summer, its bright burgundy-red fall color is stunning.

Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac, is another common landscape plant. It too is deciduous, but it grows 15 to 20 feet tall. I have chosen not to grow this sumac because it suckers so profusely. It is hard to control. However, I love the fuzzy growth on the branches similar to the velvet antler stage of a deer. Its four- to eight-inch upright fruiting structures are a deep burgundy and last through the whole winter providing great winter color and interest. If I were to grow this species, I would keep it in a container to control the suckers.

Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ or Tiger Eyes, grows only three to six feet tall and as wide. It suckers minimally. Its purplish branches are topped with yellow-gold leaves for summer that change to orange and scarlet in the fall.

So many plant varieties and only one landscape!

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor & extension educator emerita of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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