This sumac is an autumn star
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www. flowerspy.com.