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Sumac will create a beautiful autumn season

Tiger Eye sumac has a very fine textured foliage of bright yellow in summer that changes to brilliant orange and red in autumn. John Zvirovski / The Sun

Sumac makes a great specimen planting in the landscape, but many people are not familiar with this plant until it changes color in the roadside ditches with its brilliant red colors during autumn. Many people often refer to it as a shrub or small tree that can become invasive in the wrong areas, so make sure where you plant it, it has barriers.

I love the plant as it has wonderful leaves that can be anywhere from four inches to over a foot long in some species. Their leaves have numerous leaflets that give the full leaf a fern-like appearance.

In spring the leaves emerge as a yellowish to burnt orange color, but as they elongate and mature they become a deep green or yellow color dependent on variety. Wild sumac, or the Smooth Sumac, is the most common growing on forest edges and along roadside ditches. They enjoy moisture but also like to be growing in well drained soils with full sunlight in many cases. Dependent on the type you grow they can be as short as two feet tall to as lofty as eighteen feet!

Most people are most familiar with the smooth sumac. It is of medium height and has deep green leaves which turn a vibrant red in the fall season. They get small clusters of insignificant flowers at the ends of their stems that soon turn to a cluster of seeds known as drupes. These seeds can only germinate if they have been stratified, or scraped to allow water inside the seed shell to germinate. Often the most common method of stratification is through a birds system after they eat them and then expel them through their system. The most common way of making new plants is through their network of roots which allow off shoots to form and emerge through the soil. Often these start near the main plants trunk, but can extend outward to twenty feet with older plants. Pulling them out when you see them is the best way to keep their spread under control.

For a different effect, try the Staghorn Sumac which is very similar in character to the Smooth Sumac, but its branches are furry and soft to the touch. This is one of the taller varieties and has the same leave color in summer and fall and in shape. They are prone to deer damage when deer are getting their new antlers and need a place to scrape the velvet off their horns. This tough and dense shrub offers an ideal scouring thicket to rid them of this horn velvet. Of course, this process also removes a great deal of the bark from the stems.

One of my favorite varieties is the Tiger Eye Sumac. This plant has a more lacy-type foliage and is yellow in color throughout the growing season. It is not nearly as tall as the others and spreads at a less invasive rate. Average mature height is about ten feet and it takes years to obtain that height. It has a clumpy branching habit and forms a few suckers here and there, but I find they pull out easy in spring and rarely form later in the growing season. This one produces the same clusters of berries, but it really stands out in the autumn season when its leaves change from yellow to orange to often a deep crimson color. This is always a standout in my garden!

Fragrant Sumac is the other common species in our region, however the leaves are a bit different. Instead of having that ferny effect, they have a tri-lobe appearance. Each leaf has three leaflets in a triangular shape. The regular type can grow to ten feet in height, but a more recent variety called Low-Gro is a ground cover type and only reaches about two feet high and up to eight feet wide. Fortunately, even this variety has the beautiful red foliage come the autumn season.

We all look for unique items for the garden and depending on the space we are trying to fill, sometimes this selection is a winner in many forms. It has great color, texture, and form and it is not a huge tree. With a little maintenance and care, you can have a wonderful specimen that will catch the gardeners’ eye.

I am always on the lookout for the unique when it comes to plant character. Many times it is out of the ordinary items, but often it is the tried and true varieties that are best. There is a reason some of these selections have been around for many years as they have great qualities.

Hope you give all your dads the day off this weekend as it is Father’s Day and they should be appreciated with some time off and a little BBQ perhaps. Enjoy the weekend!

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