Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Native Roots: Fragrant sumac is shrub that produces fall color

Profile image for Becca Dickstein
Becca Dickstein

Fragrant Sumac, Rhus trilobata*: Medium-size deciduous shrub for fall color*

Rhus trilobata, with the common names fragrant sumac or skunkbush sumac, is a native shrub with gorgeous fall foliage. 

Fragrant sumac is deciduous, 3 to 6 feet tall; individual plants may spread to 6 to 8 feet wide. Its trifoliate 1.5 inch-long, toothed leaves emerge after it flowers in spring, become glossy deep green in summer and then turn yellow, orange and red in fall. In winter, the bare branches provide perches and shelter for birds. 

Fragrant sumac spreads via its roots to form colonies. Its dense foliage and tendency to form thickets make it useful as a thick, deciduous hedge or screen. It is generally pest- and disease-free. The leaves and young branches are fuzzy and are fragrant when crushed. Its leaves resemble those of the larger sprawling shrub R. aromatica also called "fragrant sumac" and also a native Texas plant, causing confusion. 

To make matters even less clear, there is a dwarf R. aromatica (note: not R. trilobata) in the nursery trade also called "fragrant sumac" that is useful as a deciduous ground cover. Neither R. aromatic nor R. trilobata are toxic, despite being in the same family as poison ivy. In fact, R. trilobata berries can be eaten or used to make beverages. Fragrant sumac is recognized for attracting and providing shelter for native bees. Its berries feed birds and wildlife.

Individual plants of fragrant sumac are female or male, with sex-specific flowers. In males, inconspicuous catkins bloom in spring. Female plants flower in small, creamy yellow clusters in early spring before the foliage emerges. Male plants must be available nearby for pollination to enable the female plants to produce berries. The berries are edible, hairy, red to dark red in color and typically appear in May. Birds usually devour fragrant sumac berries by June.

Full or partial sun is best for Fragrant Sumac. It will grow well in a wide variety of soils, including poor rocky soil. It must have good drainage. Water fragrant sumac when first planted. Once established, it is drought-tolerant.

Companion plants include autumn sage (Salvia greggii), fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Gregg's mistflower (Conoclinium greggii), Lindheimer's muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), gulf muhly (M. capillaris) and gayfeather (Liatris mucronata). Consider planting fragrant sumac instead of exotic perennial shrubs like oleander, nandina and highly invasive Japanese ligustrum aka privet species.

Look for the "NICE! Plant of the Season" signs and information sheets on your next visit to a participating North Texas nursery. Participating nurseries include Hartwell's Nursery in Lewisville, Denton's Meador Nursery and Painted Flower Farm and Shades of Green Nursery in Frisco. Thank you for using native plants in your landscapes.

BECCA DICKSTEIN, a member of the Trinity Forks Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, is on the University of North Texas biological sciences faculty.

FEATURED PHOTO: Fragrant sumac is deciduous and can grow as high as 6 feet. The berries are edible, hairy, red to dark red in color and typically appear in May.
Courtesy/Becca Dickstein