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Wisconsin Plant of the Week

Rhus aromatica Aiton

Anacardiaceae (Cashew Family)

Common Name:

fragrant sumac


Fragrant sumac grows in thin sandy or gravely soil over dolomite in open grasslands, dunes or among scattered oaks or pines.  Itís a small native shrub, reaching 2 m tall in the eastern part of its range, but smaller to the west.  Like other sumacs it forms large clones with stems all connected by a dense root system just below the soil surface.

Fragrant sumac blooms in early May before the leaves open. Pale yellow flowers form in dense clusters on short shoots. By August the flowers have coalesced into tight clusters of red hairy fruit just a few centimeters across.

Leaves are alternate, divided into three leaflets that are highly variable in shape and margin.  Usually leaflet edges have a few large rounded teeth. The common name applies to the fragrance of the bruised leaves.

Large clones of fragrant sumac are good upland bird cover and the berries are a winter food for birds and small mammals. Foliage is unpalatable. 

Fragrant sumac spreads by seed but germination requires breaking down the hard seed coat.  The seed needs to pass through an animalís digestive system, a sulfuric acid treatment, or be exposed to fire.  Germination also requires a cold period.  After a fire established plants sprout easily from the roots.

Fragrant sumac is easily distinguished from our more common smooth sumac (R. glabra) and staghorn sumac (R. typhina), which have much larger flower clusters, and leaves with at least 7 leaflets.

  • Origin of the name: Rhus, an ancient Greek name for sumac; aromatica, L. fragrant
  • Range:  Eastern N. Amer., w. to SD, TX and British Columbia
  • WI Range:  southern Wisconsin
  • Common associates: little bluestem, red cedar, oak, pine
  • Wetland Indicator Status: UPL
  • Coefficient of Conservatism: 10, WI, a Special Concern species; 7, MI; 10, Chicago Region
  • More info: WI State Herbarium, USDA Plant Guide
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