Comprehensive DescriptionRead full entry
General: Sumac family (Anacardiaceae). Straggling to upright native shrubs 0.5-2(-2.5) meters tall (rarely tree-like), forming colonial thickets of up to 10 feet spread, suckering from the roots, the branches slender ascending, puberulent, glabrate, or densely pilose; buds naked, tiny, yellow, hairy, surrounded by a raised, circular leaf scar. Leaves: deciduous, alternate, compound with 3 leaflets, variable in shape, lobing, and margin, the leaflets unstalked, ovate to rhomboid, more or less wedge-shaped at the base, coarsely-toothed, usually shiny-glabrous above, the terminal leaflet 3-6.5 cm long; summer foliage green to glossy blue-green, turning orange to red or purple in the fall. Flowers: yellow, in small, dense inflorescences on short lateral shoots, opening before the leaves, bisexual and unisexual, both types borne on the same plant (the species polygamodioecious); male (staminate) flowers in yellowish catkins, female (pistillate) flowers in bright yellow, short panicles at the ends of branches. Fruits: 5-7 mm in diameter, bright red at maturity and densely hairy, containing a single nutlet 3.8-4.5 mm long, in terminal clusters. The common name “sumac” is from the Middle English for related tree. The leaves are fragrant or at least odorous.
Variation within the species: three varieties are currently recognized, based on differences in geography, leaf shape, and pubescence of stems, leaves, and fruits. Var. aromatica occurs over nearly the whole range of the species.
Rhus aromatica var. arenaria (Greene) Fern. – restricted to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Rhus aromatica var. serotina (Greene) Rehd. – the western segment, occurring from South Dakota to Texas and eastward to Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. It apparently intergrades with forms of Rhus trilobata where their ranges meet in the Great Plains (mainly from Texas to South Dakota).
Distribution: Fragrant sumac is native to most of the US east of the Rocky Mountains, from Ontario and western Quebec, Massachussetts and New Hampshire to Florida and west to the Great Plains in Texas to South Dakota. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.