Smooth Sumac

Rhus glabra

Description & Overview

Smooth sumac is a Wisconsin native shrub. It’s a vigorous, colonizing shrub with great value to wildlife, and it will thrive in exposed and challenging sites such as roadway embankments where few other plants would survive. Perhaps not for the more refined garden palate, this is a coarse but beautiful plant that is ready to tackle the toughest environments thrown at it. May also be known as Scarlet Sumac.


Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 10-15 feet
Mature Spread: 10-15 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Spreading
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Tolerates many sites except poorly drained soils
Flower: Dioecious. Female flowers are yellowish-green, in 5-10” panicles
Bloom Period: June/July
Foliage: Large (18” long), dark green leaves: Compoundly divided with 4” oblong-lanceolate leaflets
Fall Color: Red, orange, purple
Fruit Notes: On female plants, pyramidal clusters of drupes ripen to a showy, bright red color and persist through winter.

Suggested Uses:

This is an adaptable tough plant that will thrive where other species fail. Tolerant of rocky, dry, exposed sites, it is a vigorous grower. It may be too aggressive for traditional/formal homeowner landscapes, but it’s excellent for restoration of recently disturbed sites such as slopes and banks where pollution, salt spray, and heat can be limiting factors for most other species.

We list Smooth Sumac as not Urban Approved. But it’s a bulletproof plant and great for tough sites; the colonizing habit is the only ‘downside’ for it.

  • Native Restoration projects.
  • Great for slope stabilization on large areas.
  • Staghorn Sumac is commonly found, and planted, on embankments along highways and overpasses where pollution, salt spray, and heat can be the limiting factor for most other species.
  • Can be planted around Black Walnuts – NOT susceptible to juglone (Black Walnut toxicity).

Salable #2 Container Smooth Sumac. Pictures taken between early October and late November. Also showing you form options.

Wildlife Value:

Tremendous wildlife value. Flowers provide nectar for many butterflies, and it’s a larval host plant to the Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops). Over 300 species of birds dine on sumac fruit including: ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, eastern phoebe, common crow, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, American robin, wood thrush, hermit thrush, eastern bluebird, and quail. Rabbits and squirrels will eat the bark. Deer will browse on both stems and fruits.

Maintenance Tips:

This is an extremely aggressive plant that’s not suited for small landscapes. Plant only in sites where it’s permitted to sucker and colonize. You can use the Rejuvenative Method of Pruning if you desire to control its growth. This is best done in late winter. For some homeowners, the winter form of this plant looks extraordinarily bare – comparable to a large stick coming out of the ground; if you are wanting winter interest, this may not be the plant for you.

Lacette™ Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Fine Textured Compact Select A’) is a less aggressive, low-maintenance, and lower growing alternative for more controlled sites. Similar to ‘Gro-Low’, but more refined texture, this selection was developed right here at Johnson’s Nursery by Mike Yanny!

Pests/Problems:

None serious. Tolerant of heavier soils than Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) or Shining Sumac (Rhus copallina).

Leaf Lore:

Just like Staghorn Sumac, a lemonade-like beverage, high in vitamin C and antioxidants, can be made by steeping Smooth Sumac fruit in hot water.

The leaves of Smooth Sumac can be utilized to make black ink.

A word of caution: Poison Sumac has similar looking leaves to both Staghorn Sumac and (especially) Smooth Sumac – all have long, compound leaves. Poison Sumac has white-green colored fruit, while both Staghorn and Smooth Sumac are bright red. If fruits are not visible on the plant, look at the location of the plant; Poison Sumac will likely be in very damp, wet, boggy soils, whereas Staghorn and Smooth sumac prefer well-drained, upland sites (they will not be in standing water). If you don’t see those red berries, it’s best to just leave the plant entirely alone!

Companion Plants:

Pair with other tough, spreading species suitable for erosion control such as Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa) or spreading junipers (Juniperus spp.) to add multiple layers to a bank. Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioica) is a similarly coarse-textured, hardy tree for tough, large sites. Evergreens, such as arborvitae or spruces, would provide a dramatic contrast to its bold fall color. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Dwarf Bushhoneysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), or Cranberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) would offer similar utilitarian, low-maintenance features.