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Rhus glabra – Of Sumac, Fall Color, and Honey Bees

The fall color of smooth sumac blazes. Smooth sumac is a plant we rarely think about until the inevitable day in fall when we pass a solitary plant or a maybe a colony and are struck by the beauty.

Sumac is often seen on the side of the road, in fields, and rocky places.

Sumac is the only plant species native to all 48 contiguous states.

It is highly doubtful the sumac in the photograph was planted by anything other than wind or bird. It is found in places where it can settle easily.Smooth sumac is rarely found in garden centers. This is a pity as sumac is an environmental and visual asset: it is native, attractive to honey bees, and the fall color stops us in our tracks. Especially considering the growing concern about honey bee populations, any plants that can arrest the bees’ decline is invaluable. In addition to the aforementioned good qualities, the larvae of hairstreak butterfly (Calycopis cecrops) uses several species of sumac as host.

Plant smooth sumac in areas where it can naturalize. Conversely, do not plant Rhus glabra where you do not want it to spread. Smooth sumac is most attractive growing unhindered where it may spread into a colony. Individual colonies may be one plant that has suckered extensively.

Sumac is a tough customer. It is extremely drought tolerant; plant it where nothing else survives and it may thrive. Neither pests nor diseases seem to touch it. If one were lucky enough to have a woodland garden with some gaps for sun, planting sumac on these edges would be ideal. Sun exposure during the main part of the day will bring best fall color.

Sumac is a coarse plant and especially when young a bit awkward. The gangly stems topped by pinnately compound leaves can give one the impression Dr. Seuss dreamed it up. Give it time and as the colony develops the sumac will develop more presence in the landscape.

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