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Sumach's Study of Trees 13

Updated on August 9, 2015

Beautiful autumnal colours of the Sumach.



This is the thirteenth in the series 'A Study of Trees', which aims to aid those interested in identifying trees but are not familiar with the species. Most people commence their identification of trees by studying the form and colour of the foliage, which is fine when the tree is in leaf,but of little use when the leaves have fallen and the branches are left naked and bare.However, all tree species have a character{s} that help to identify them even in the depths of winter.

Here we look at the Sumac and its varieties, with the aid of descriptive text and clear images it will enable anyone who wishes to do so identify the tree{s}

Sumach's, sometimes spelt sumac, belong to the order of trees known as the Sapindales and the family Anacardinaceae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Rhus. We commence with the Stag'shorn Sumach Rhus typhina.

Rhus typhina


Stag's horn Sumach

The Stag'shorn Sumach is a native to eastern North America,south eastern Canada and Mid-Western USA. It is a species that has been widely cultivated as a garden ornamental in many parts of the world. This is understandable as it is a small tree that affords some interest throughout the year. However, this species produces vigorous suckers which help it to spread the species in its native land,making it unsuitable for small gardens.

In British gardens Rhus typhina is either a large shrub or a low tree,with a woody trunk and a head composed of many irregular branches generally crooked and 'deformed'. The young shoots are covered with a soft velvet down,resembling that of a young Stag's horn,both in colour and texture.This along with the crooked branches gave rise to its common name.

This native of North America was first cultivated by Parkinson, in 1629,and by the mid 1800's it was a very common plant in British gardens. Louden, informs us that in the garden of the London Horticultural Society it attained the height of twelve feet tall. In British gardens it well deserved its place,from its large and beautiful foliage and its striking colour in autumn,it spikes of red fruit and the singularity of its branches in winter.

As the plant is of open ,irregular growth and not of long duration, it was advised not to be grown where it was standing alone on a lawn. if trained to a single trunk either of the forms of this species may be made an interesting small tree,however, they are relatively short lived. The price in London in 1844 was one shilling per plant or one shilling per ounce of seeds. In New York the price was 25 cents per plant and the seeds cost one dollar per quart.

Foliage and male flower

Uploaded by Syp
Uploaded by Syp | Source

Foliage, flowers and fruit.

The leaves consist of 8-10 pairs of leaflets, terminated by a single leaflet. the leaflets are arranged opposite to each other and are lance shaped and toothed at the margins,they are hoary beneath. The stalks are hairy {as are the young branches}. the leaves are from two feet+ in length and in their native America many produce between nine and thirty one leaflets. The leaflets are up to five inches long and one inch across. The upper surface is dark green and shiny whilst the lower surface is pale white. During the autumn the foliage is very striking with red/purple or yellowish red colours which brighten the landscape, { see header photograph}

The flowers are produced in close spikes at the end of the branches,and the female ones are followed by seeds enclosed in woolly,simple,succulent covers,which are conspicuous in the autumn. Some of the upper stems terminate in individual panicles of greenish-yellow flowers up to one long and half an inch across. Each individual flower is about a quarter of an inch across,consisting of five spreading petals, a calyx with five lobes, five stamens and a central pistil. The blooming period occurs during early to mid summer and lasts for about two to three weeks.

Each flower is replaced by a globoid drupe about one sixth of an inch long which is thickly covered with bright red hairs. This drupe contains a single seed with a hard coating. these droops mature during the early autumn and,if not eaten, persist through the winter,they eventually become dark brown.



Summer foliage of Rhus glabra


Rhus glabra distribution map USA


Rhus glabra

The second species under review is the Smooth or Scarlet Sumach,Rhus glabra. The general appearance of this species is similar to that of the former,but generally smaller,the branches more spreading and smooth and the leaflets wider, less serrated and of a deeper green. The lack of hairs distinguish this species from all other Sumach species.

The flowers of Rhus glabra are greenish red and the fruit grows in clusters of small berries. The fruits have a downy covering but this is soon washed off by the rain. The branches are a pale grey sometimes tinged with red.

In woods it is found on the margins of open glades in North America where it is also widely cultivated.One American author of the 18th century remarks " It is like a weed in some parts of the country,and if a field be left uncultivated,this shrub overruns it,from berries which are brought by birds,and when the ground comes again into tillage, the roots stop the plow very much"

The fruit remains on the tree during the winter but the foliage drops off very early in the autumn,the tree seldom grows more than ten feet high. On cutting the stem,a yellow juice comes out between the bark and the wood,one or two of the outer circles of the wood are white,but the innermost are of a yellowish green. It also contains a pith frequently half an inch in diameter,or more, of a brown colour,and so loose it is easily pushed out by a stick.

In British gardens this species has been cultivated since 1726. A plant in the garden of the London Horticultural Society was,in 1834,six feet high after ten years of being planted. Although the berries of this species are not toxic they are very sour. In any case they are easily confused with the toxic types and are better left alone if identification is in doubt.

Fruits of Rhus glabra


Poison Oak red phase


Berries of T.diversilobia


The Poison Oak. Toxicodendron

This species was once referred to as Rhus diversiloba and before that Rhus radicans. The new genus name of Toxicodendron, derives from two Greek words tokikos indicating poison and dendron a tree.

It is not in fact an oak or even a relative of the oak and is confusingly so named because the foliage of this species is superficially like those of the white oak Quercus alba. In America our subject has a low shrubby stem from two to three feet,from which shoots proceed near the bottom to the distance of twenty to thirty feet on each side, rooting at the joints and occupying the surface of the ground.

If it is placed near a wall or a tree the shoots climb up and root at the joints of a wall or furrows on a tree. It may well climb to the top of a tall tree, in a vine-like manner. It reproduces by suckers and seeds.

The foliage is divided into three ,rarely more, leaflets with scalloped,toothed or lobed edges. When they first unfold they are usually tinged with a bronze hue. They turn bright green in spring,progressing to yellow green in summer and maturing to reddish pink from late July to October.

Succeeding the flowers which bloom from March to June, they produce greyish-white berries. This species causes irritation and rashes and even severe blistering to many people,so be aware when handling any part of this species.

Poison Oak flowering


Foliage of T.vernix


Illustration of the Poisonous Sumach


The Poisonous Sumac

We conclude this review with the Poisonous Sumac, Toxicondren vernix,which was perviously known as Rhus vernix and before that Rhus venenata. Its former common names included Poison wood and Swamp Sumach.

It is regarded as a small tree growing up to thirty feet in height {in its native habitat} Each leaf has seven to thirteen leaflets each of which is two to four inches long. They are arranged opposite to each other with a single terminal one. In shape they are oval-oblong tapering to a sharp point and wedge shaped at the base. They tend to have wavy margins.

The underside of the leaf is hairless or slightly pubescent {down-like hair}. The stems along the leaf are reddish. The leaves,particularly those near the top of the tree may have a reddish tint. Although the leaves are divided like the previous species under review they are different from them in being smooth,shining and having leaflets very entire, narrow and pointed and the veins of a purplish red colour. The foliage in autumn die off of an intense red or purple colour and they are in the autumn strikingly beautiful.

The flowers are greenish in loose panicles {clusters} three to eight inches long.

The bark when young is light grey but as the tree ages it becomes much darker. In British gardens it does not grow so vigorously unless the soil is sufficiently very moist as the American name Swamp Sumach implies.

According to some botanists it is the most toxic plant species in the USA, much more virulent than its allies the Poison ivy and the Poison Oak. Indeed when grown in British gardens it was recommended that a label was attached warning of its toxic properties. In 1850 it was sold in London nurseries for one shilling and sixpence each and the seeds were two shillings per ounce.

Poisonous Sumach

Taken in Wisconsin USA.
Taken in Wisconsin USA. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, good luck with your investigations,the trees should be well into their autumn colours by now. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I believe that I have sumacs at Boomer Lake. I have to investigate!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hello Devika,Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year as regards trees,they produce such glorious displays at this time. Thank you for your usual kind comments and for the Votes, you are very kind. Best wishes to you..


      Hi, thank you too,for your appreciated visit and for taking the time to comment. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      We have them here in San Diego County and the poisonous Sumac also. Our more desert type variety is much smaller.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. this time of year all the leaves are falling of trees and we have so many around our place. I like trees and you have a wonderful insight of all trees. Voted up. interesting, useful and beautiful.


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