This sumac is an au­tumn star

Home - Santa Fe Real Estate Guide - - SANTAFEINBLOOM - CA­ROLE A. LANGRALL

Zo­zo­bra may be over but the au­tum­nal land­scape is on fire in shades of scar­let, gold, and cop­per. The as­pens are show­ing off again with their jaw-drop­ping fire­works dis­play as are many other high-desert de­cid­u­ous trees and shrubs. Oc­to­ber is the month to ex­pe­ri­ence it be­fore that first frost ar­rives and ends the fes­tiv­i­ties, so make sure to get some hik­ing and leaf peep­ing in now.

There is a na­tive shrub that is grab­bing sur­pris­ing at­ten­tion with its bright, sea­sonal fo­liage: Rhus trilo­bata, or three­leaf sumac. This ubiq­ui­tous plant can be found vir­tu­ally all over the South­west from desert roads and moun­tain­sides to xeric gar­dens; it is one of those plants that likes to hide in plain sight, blend­ing eas­ily into the desert back­ground of pinyons, scrub oaks, and ju­nipers.

Each fall, its de­cid­u­ous, emer­ald-green leaves be­come a re­splen­dent shade of ver­mil­lion, turn­ing the shrub froma mo­not­o­nous desert plant into a blaz­ing star. In ad­di­tion to its color trans­for­ma­tion, three-leaf sumac can tol­er­ate the fluc­tu­at­ing tem­per­a­tures and dry cli­mate of the South­west, mak­ing it a great xeric plant for any land­scape.

Also oc­cur­ring in Africa, Europe, and the Mid­dle East, three-leaf sumac thrives in North Amer­ica, do­ing best in USDA plant har­di­ness zones 4-8. Grow­ing six to eight feet tall, this xeric plant will live a long life pro­vided it avoids flood­ing and overly wet soil. If this oc­curs, the shrub is sus­cep­ti­ble to damp­ing-off dis­ease, a con­di­tion where pathogens cause root rot or crown rot from fungi and wa­ter mold.

Three-leaf sumac be­gins bloom­ing in March or early April by pro­duc­ing baby catkins that be­come small, char­treuse flow­ers and, later in the sum­mer, hairy red berries that are slightly sticky. It prefers full sun to par­tial shade and can live in a wide range of soils from nearly bare rock and sand to heavy clays. A true sur­vivor of wild­fires, it may burn to the ground, but the root crown will sur­vive and vig­or­ously pro­duce sprouts quickly.

Also called “skunkbush” and “ill-scented sumac” due to its pun­gent leaves and berries, Rhus trilo­bata has earned many nick­names. All parts of the plant have been tra­di­tion­ally used by South­west Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes in­clud­ing the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Apache, and Huala­pai. The fruits are edi­ble, high in vi­ta­min C, and make a pop­u­lar, tart drink that tastes like le­mon­ade. The berries are also used to make nat­u­ral dyes for wool. Young branches and twigs are a pop­u­lar choice in bas­ket-mak­ing, Thus “le­mon­ade bush,” “bas­ket­bush,” and “squaw­bush.”

Its most com­mon name comes fromits three lobed (“tri­fo­li­ate”) leaves that oc­cur al­ter­nately on its branches. It is a mem­ber of the Anac­ar­diaceae fam­ily, the same fam­ily that in­cludes cashews and man­gos, but it has a sin­is­ter rel­a­tive: thewest­ern poi­son oak. For­tu­nately, this species of sumac got the good genes and is non-poi­sonous.

En­vi­ron­men­tally, the three-leaf sumac has a lot to of­fer. The dried berries are an ex­cel­lent source of win­ter food for quail and other birds and small mam­mals, and the shrub pro­vides a good nest­ing cover for birds. Larger an­i­mals like deer, elk, and pronghorn are known to for­age when other sources are un­avail­able. Bees love it too... es­pe­cially na­tive bees that use the dense un­der­brush as a struc­ture for nest­ing ma­te­rial.

Three-leaf sumac’s medic­i­nal uses vary as much as its nick­names. Chew­ing the bark was pop­u­lar among Na­tive Amer­i­cans and some early set­tlers to treat colds and toothaches. The leaves have been used for many ail­ments: as a di­ges­tive aid for stom­achaches; as a di­uretic; as a treat­ment for rashes, in­clud­ing poi­son ivy; and as a poul­tice for bleed­ing. The Co­manches were said to have smoked its leaves, though there is no known health ben­e­fit to this.

If you are look­ing for a na­tive plant that blends in with the scenery in the sum­mer and stands out in the fall, the three-leaf sumac is a good choice. Lo-Gro three-leaf sumac is avail­able at lo­cal Santa Fe nurs­eries, in­clud­ing Plants of the South­west, High Coun­try Gar­dens, Agua Fria Nurs­ery, and Payne’s Nurs­eries.

Ca­role has been in the flori­cul­ture in­dus­try, from in­ter­na­tional whole­sale and re­tail sales to event plan­ning, for over 20 years. She has flo­ral stu­dios in Santa Fe and Bal­ti­more, was a Santa Fe Master Gar­dener, and sup­ports lo­cal/na­tional flower farms and beau­ti­fi­ca­tion projects. She is avail­able for demon­stra­tions and lec­tures. Con­tact her at clan­grall@gmail.com or visit www. flow­er­spy.com.

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