Monday, July 1, 2024

Winged sumac, a useful understory shrub

A small winged sumac in bloom, which
attracts a wide variety of pollinators.

Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is a deciduous, compact, densely growing, colonizing shrub that is native to all of Florida and the eastern half of North America. It can grow to 10 to 25 feet tall and nearly as wide, although the ones in our yard are much smaller than that. They will grow in a wide variety of situations, but they do best in full sun or partial shade and require good drainage. 

This plant could be used in a hedge row with a variety of other shrubs and is a good choice for naturalizing at the edge between wooded and open areas. Keep in mind that it will be bare for a few months in the winter. It can spread quite some distance via rhizomes or underground roots, so keep that in mind when choosing planting sites.

New winged sumacs sprouting in our freedom lawn, but I'm not sure whether they were from seeds or rhizome. I'd guess rhizome, even though they are 20' away from established shrubs. A small shrub just getting started at the edge of a wooded area.

Cashew plant family

It’s a member of the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on separate individuals and that both male and female plants are required for fruit production. The greenish-yellow flowers occur in upright clusters at the ends of its branches in late summer and last for 2-3 weeks and attract a wide variety of pollinators. Pollinated female flowers ripen to form upright clusters of velvety, red fruits (drupes) in tight, pyramidal clusters which often remain through winter. They are distinctive, attractive, and edible by wildlife and by humans. 

While they are in the same family, do not confuse this lovely shrub with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix, formerly Rhus vernix), which contains an oily resin called urushiol that causes skin and mucous membrane irritation to most humans, the same as poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The poison sumacs, which are also native to most of Florida, grow only in reliably wet areas and have white berries that grow in the leaf axils, not at the tips of the branches.

The "wings" along the stem of its pinnately
compound leaf give it one of its common
names, while the reliable fall color gives
another common name.

Common names

Winged sumac gets one of its common names from the conspicuous leafy ridges or “wings” on the central leaf stalk (rachis) of the compound leaves, which is an easily identifiable characteristic that can help to differentiate between this species and other sumacs. Another common name it goes by is shining sumac due to the lustrous quality of its deep green leaves. Its fall color gives it yet another name, the flameleaf sumac, because of its blazing red hue.

Pollinators love this plant.

Habitat gardening

Sumacs have a high ecological importance for wildlife through the interconnected food web. They attract a wide variety of pollinators, and then after the fruit is produced, many species of migrating and overwintering birds rely on the fruits as a high-fat food source. It is a larval host plant for Red-Banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) which has two broods a year from April-October. It is also a host plant for the Luna moth (Actias luna). Butterflies and bees nectar at the flowers. Its fruits are eaten by songbirds, white-tailed deer, opossums, wild turkey, and quail. Read my article for more information on habitat gardening

Here is the FNPS plant profile for this lovely shrub, which includes a link to native plant vendors that have it in stock. 

So I hope you’ll add this easy-to-grow native shrub to your landscape and recommend it for other landscapes in your community.

Green Gardening Matters
Ginny Stibolt

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