This seems to be a terrific year for the Sumac. They are green, healthy and extremely pleasing to the eye. The three main types of sumac are smooth, staghorn and fragrant.
The smooth sumac is considered a native shrub/tree in our diocese and is well adapted to our fussy Colorado climate, soils and environmental conditions. Sumacs are especially useful for windbreaks, stabilizing embankments, naturalizing wild areas and forming thickets.
Sumacs are members of the Anacardiaceae (Cashew Family); like cashews and mangos they have a few common poisonous species. Although they are close relatives of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, they have markedly different appearances. All of these poisonous plants have white or yellowish berries and more importantly, all non-poisonous sumac berries are red. This is critical information to remember, as it will help prevent misidentification.
Smooth sumac grows 9-15 feet tall and is considered a fast-growing tree. They tend to grow close together, forming dense thickets. The long, lanceshaped leaves of this plant alternate along each stem. Each compound leaf has between 11 to 31 leaflets, has toothed margins, and a shiny dark green upper surface. Depending on the variety, the small greenish, 5-petaled flowers bloom in large groups at the ends of branches during May and June. The round, red, fleshy, and hairy fruits ripen in August and September.
The Fragrant sumac is very similar but has only 3 leaflets and yellow flowers. The Staghorn sumac is a large, loose, open-spreading shrub (15-25 feet tall) with a flattish crown and rather picturesque branches resembling the velvety antlers of a deer, hence the name Staghorn. It has borderline hardiness and may regularly freeze back in winter. The flowers are dense, hairy 6-12 inch panicles and are greenish-yellow in color. The fruits are densely hairy drupes that are packed in a pyramidal cluster. They are red to crimson in color.
When planting sumac they are forgiving of our Colorado soil types. They are cold hardy to USDA Zone 3 with stem dieback sometimes occurring. Keep in mind, they like to multiply. They have a fibrous, spreading root system which makes them ideal for a slope or embankment that is in need of erosion control. They do well in full sun to part shade. Once established they are drought tolerant. A plus, is that sumacs are famous for their sensational yellow-orange-red fall color. Side note: staghorn is less drought tolerant then smooth.
A sumac to consider is the Tiger Eyes Sumac. This bright, attractive shrub grows up to 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It has dramatic, bold, deeply divided leaves that are chartreuse green in spring, bright yellow in summer and orange and scarlet in fall, making it an ever-changing color display in the garden. It works well as a background shrub in large beds or peps up an area that just “needs a little something”. This shrub does well in any of our soil types but the soil must be well-drained. Amazingly it thrives in stony and rocky soil. Once established (needs regular watering for the first year) the Tiger Eyes Sumac is drought-resistant and is usually pest and disease free.
June is here and along with it comes summer — a brandnew summer for all — a summer that will bring us sweet fruits, nourishing vegetables, spectacular flowers and strong, solid trees. We pray that, by the grace of God, this summer also brings us hope and healing — hope for a better tomorrow and healing for our bodies and for our souls.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)