Plants and Animals
A native shrub with tropical good looks, this species supports wildlife, stabilizes soil…and can flavor drinks.
In recent times, smooth sumac has lost much of its value. It was once prized by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal uses, including treatment of asthma and dysentery. Because the twigs, leaves and roots also contain tannin, they were processed into stains and dyes. The species is now enjoyed mostly for its crimson fall foliage and the birds it attracts with its abundant berry-like clusters. Some wild edibles fans are also drawn to the fruits, and enjoy soaking them to make a tangy, lemonade-like drink or steeping them for tea. (This practice is not recommended unless the species is positively identified.)
Smooth sumac fruits are eaten by a wide variety of birds, including wild turkey and bobwhite quail. Their spreading canopy also provides quail with shade and escape cover in the summer. Cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer browse on the shrub’s leaves and twigs. Because the species can thrive in areas with poor soils, it is helpful in stabilizing embankments and naturalizing hard-to-cover areas. However, care should be taken in controlling the species, as its dense, thicket-forming colonies may crowd out other native species.
Smooth sumac has ornamental allure due to its dramatic stems, fern-like leaf structure, and bright autumn foliage and fruit. Uses include shrub borders, hedgerows and screens, or naturalizing edges of woodlands. It grows readily in average, dry to medium wet, well-drained soil. New stems sprout from the roots. These “suckers” can be removed to prevent unwanted spread. The species may attain a height of 20 feet, though 6–10 feet is more common.
Both male and female flowers are produced in dense clusters at the end of new growth in late May–July, on separate plants. Clusters are 5–9 inches long and 3–5 inches wide. Flowers are greenish-yellow. The tiny, 1/8-inch-diameter fruits, known as “drupes” (a fleshy fruit with a hard or stony center) are produced in August–September. Each drupe is covered with short, velvety hairs and contains a single seed. Female plants produce showy, erect, pyramidal fruiting clusters (to 8 inches long). The clusters turn red, and then maroon-brown, when ripe and persist through the winter.
Smooth sumac is native to and occurs throughout the U.S. and into southern Canada, but is most common in the eastern U.S. It can be found in upland prairies, thickets, idle fields, borders and openings of woods, roadsides and along railroads. It occurs throughout Missouri.
—Nichole LeClair Terrill, photo by Jim Rathert
For More Information
To learn more about smooth sumac, visit the links listed below.