Monday, July 30, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Sumac

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina) is a great addition to the edge of a Forest Garden

Common Name: Sumac
Scientific Names: Rhus species
Family: Anacardiaceae (the Cashew or Sumac family)
Selected Species:
  • Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
  • Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallina)
  • Elm-Leaved Sumac (Rhus coriaria)
  • Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
  • Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina)
  • Punjab Sumac (Rhus punjabensis)
  • Sourberry/Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)
  • Northern Hybrid Sumac (Rhux x pulvinata)

Harvested berry clusters of the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina).

Sumacs are a large family of shrubs, about 250 species, that primarily originate from North America and Africa. The shrubs from North America are best known for its lemony-tart fruit which was used by natives to make natural “pink lemonade”. In the Mediterranean, the flesh of the sumac berry is dried, ground, and used as a lemony spice. This was a common seasoning I really enjoyed while living in Turkey. All sumacs are drought resistant once established, larger species can be used as windbreaks, and smaller species are used as ornamentals. Many varieties are now being used around the world for prevention of soil erosion. They are all fantastic nectar and pollen sources for bees and other beneficial insects as well as providing Winter food and shelter in the thickets these plants can form if allowed.

Native to North America and Africa, Sumac plants were used by natives for food (drink) and medicine. In more recent times, they have been "discovered" by landscapers and used as ornamental plants; however, there has been very little development of these plants, and so they remain rather “wild”.

  • While closely related to Poison Sumac (Rhus toxicodendron), Poison oak (Rhus diversiloba) and Poison sumac (Rhus vernix), the species listed in this article are not poisonous.
  • The powdered spice from the fruit of the Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria) is mixed with Syrian Oregano (Origanum vulgare syriacum) and other available spices (Basil, Thyme, etc) in the famous spice mix, Za'atar
The fruit of the Smooth Sumac (R. glabra).

Sumac-ade from the Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) - all edible Sumac can make this drink!

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating - the fruit from Sumacs are small and very tart, so few people choose to eat them fresh
  • Tea or Drink made from the berries – traditionally, you can place fruit into water and let soak in the sun to make a “pink lemonade”. Too hot of water releases the bitter tannins. But you can get a more concentrated juice by using some modern technology (here is a link to a site with a fantastic explanation of how to do this)
  • Dried fruit may be ground (without the seed) and used as a spice – popular in Middle Eastern cuisine
  • Immature fruit of some species (R. coriaria) can be used as a caper substitute
  • Ornamental plant - flowers in Spring, fruit in the Summer, and crimson foliage in Autumn

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Food source for wildlife – especially birds in Winter
  • Thickets can create habitat for small birds and mammals and other wildlife
  • Windbreaks (small to large) – can form thickets that are great at blocking or directing wind
  • Prevention of soil erosion – thanks to fibrous network of roots
  • Dyes can be made from all parts of the plant (leaves – brown, roots – yellow, inner bark – orange).
  • It is also used as a mordant (substance that sets the dye).
  • Ink – boiling leaves and fruit.
  • Tanning
  • Shoots can be used to make strong “pipes” which have been used for tapping maple trees and making flutes
  • Some species can grow in maritime enviroments (Staghorn Sumac for sure, not clear on the other species)

Yield: No reliable information
Harvesting: October - December.
Storage: Best used fresh or dried

Sumac first turns orange in Autumn - Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina).

...and then turns a brilliant red - Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallina)

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement:Likely considering the Hardiness Zone and the flowering nature of the plant, but there is no reliable information available

Plant Type: Small Tree, Large Shrub, Medium Shrub, and Small Shrub (depending on the species)
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree for small Forest Garden, Sub-Canopy (Understory), Shrub Layer, or Groundcover (depending on the species/cultivar)
Cultivars/Varieties: Very few cultivars have been produced. This is a very “wild” plant 

Pollination: Staghorn Sumacs are dioecious (meaning there are male and female plants)
Flowering: Summer. June-August.

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-5 years
Years of Useful Life: Likely between 30-50 years (less for smaller specimens), but as this plant suckers so easily, this may be irrelevant.

  • Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (R. aromatica) - 2-8 feet (0.6-2.4 meters) tall and 6-10 feet (1.8-3 meters) wide
  • Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (R. copallina) - 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) tall and wide, much smaller than the Staghorn Sumac, its relative that grows in the same parts of North America
  • Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria)  - 10 feet (3 meters) tall and wide
  • Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) - 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) tall and wide
  • Staghorn Sumac (R. hirta/typhina) - 35-50 feet (10-15 meters) tall and wide, often much shorter
  • Punjab Sumac (R. punjabensis) - 30-40 feet (9-12 meters) tall
  • Sourberry/Skunkbush (R. trilobata) - 4-6 feet (1-1.8 meters) tall and wide
  • Northern Hybrid Sumac (R. x pulvinata) - 6-9 feet (1.8-2.7 meters) tall and 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) wide

Roots: Fibrous roots that send up suckers which can develop into new plants
Growth Rate: Medium - Fast

"Gro-Low" cultivar of Lemon or Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a great groundcover.

Fruit of the "Gro-Low" Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica cv)

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Medium to dry soils, but can tolerate periods of drought once established
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Propagation: Seed – germinates well after a 24 hour pre-soak in hot water. Root cuttings and sucker cuttings taken in late Autumn through Winter usually do well.

Minimal.  If using this plant in the central portions of a Forest Garden, may need to keep the suckering roots from developing new plants – a quick snip of the clippers works well.

  • Can spread easily through the suckering roots and/or through seed. This can be great if you are using it as a windbreak, but can create some additional work if you are using it in the middle of a Forest Garden.
  • There are a number of unsubstantiated reports of Sumac being toxic or irritating to the skin, likely from this plant being related to Poison Sumac. This is not true in general; however, any person can develop an allergy to any plant at any time.


  1. natural pink lemonaid! Cant wait to try this! Thanks for the Awesome posts! Keep it up!

  2. Do you happen to know if sumac responds well to pollarding? I've already got tons of this on a hillside that I'd like to develop into a forest garden, and I was thinking it might be a decent nurse tree while the fruit trees get established.

    1. In my climate zone 6 in midwest it does well with pollarding. I have even cut flush with ground and still comes up but it grows prolifically in the wild here. I am using them for a natural trellis for my vine plants and top it every year.

  3. I doubt there is much information on this as most species in this family have sap that contains the same chemical (urishiol) as is found in Poison Ivy or Poison Oak. Pollarding and coppicing is typically done to wood to burn, and burning the wood of many species in this family would produce very irritating smoke... maybe even life-threatening.

    However, if you were just going to chop and drop, or maybe chop and feed to goats, it may work. My advice is to try one tree for the first year and see how it does.

    Please let us know if you get any results, good or bad, if you choose to experiment.

    - John (TCPermaculture)

  4. sumac fruits have hi level ORAC even dried

  5. I remember making sumac-aid with my mother many years ago, and it was good! Pick the ripe fruit, check over carefully for bugs, and then gently soak the fruit in cold water. I believe it's the red "fuzz" that holds the flavor, not the seeds, so don't try to mash them; it'll only release the bitter tannins. Strain the resulting pink water and sweeten to taste.

  6. My sumac was seemingly Hardy no I have not looked at it in 3 weeks, while mowing the grass I noticed it's naked except for a few scraggly leaves around the top. I have never seen it like this. We have only had one cold snap but not below freezing. Any suggestions as to what's going on


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  8. Do you have a rhus typhina plant in nz? Not sure how to find one!

  9. Is Staghorn Sumac a good nitrogen fixer?

  10. I am also wondering if it a nitrogen fixer. says smooth sumac is but I have not found another source to say sumacs are.

    1. This article says in cold weather it helped Nitrogen fixing bacteria, but not so much in warmer climates.


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