More Information About Rhus"Sumac" is a word derived from Syrian word for "red" which was passed down through Arabic, Latin, and French before reaching the English language. What a trip! The genus name Rhus also means "red" but had a less interesting path, being coined by the greek philosopher and plant nerd, Theophrastus. Later, the word moved into Latin and changed its meaning to "woody shrub".
Rhus is a woody shrub or small tree in the Anacardiaceae family which is most notorious for being the family of poison ivy (genus Toxicodendron). This is also the family of the edible cashews, pistachios and black pepper, so they are not all bad. Cotinus (Smoketree) is a close ornamental cousin of Rhus. There are a few sumac species that are poisonous, and whose sap creates the itchy red rash so many of us have encountered. However, we are only interested in the itch-free ornamental varieties whose claim to to fame are their fabulously colorful fall foliage in brilliant shades or yellow, orange, red and purple. Here's a tip for those of you looking to avoid the itch of the evil Rhus. If the fruit is red, the plant is safe, if it is white, look out!
The red fruit of a middle eastern sumac species (Rhus coriaria) are dried and ground into a lemony-tasting powder popularly used as a culinary seasoning in middle eastern food like hummus or kebabs. Native Americans used to make a lemony drink called sumac-ade from the fruit of various native North American Rhus species (R. glabra and R. typhina). If you want fruit on your sumac, be sure to buy a female clone, as this genus is dioecious.
But for those of you interested in its ornamental characteristics, Rhus makes a suckering shrub with ferny-foliage, great for covering a bank or massing in an open area near the edge of a forest. The red fruit and colorful leaves brighten garden each autumn. In addition to its wonderful fall foliage, there are several cut-leaf cultivars of Rhus to add to the visual display. Sumac attracts birds and butterflies to the garden, tolerates dry, shallow or rocky soil, and is quite drought tolerant once established. These traits would make it perfect for a rain garden or for stabilizing a steep bank.
If you are itching to try an ornamental sumac in your garden, and are ready to buy Rhus, check out our online list of Rhus for sale below.