My last post was about poison ivy and now I want to show you a plant that often is confused with it.
The leaves of Rhus aromatica can be mistaken for poison ivy. They are trifoliate, shiny, and grow on woody stems. They turn scarlet in autumn.
This is fragrant sumac. It's a low ornamental groundcover, and I have planted it everywhere under trees in my garden. It is in the sumac family, but it is not poison sumac, and it is completely unrelated to poison ivy. It is not a vine, and it causes no rash when you touch it.
In fact, when you touch its leaves, Rhus aromatica gives off a fragrance, as the name suggests, which is described as "citrusy". I think not.
I think it is stinky, a little like peanut butter left on the shelf during a heat wave, oily and stale. How does anyone think that smells like citrus?
But despite my aversion to the smell, I absolutely love this plant.
I first saw a stand of it growing on a bank at Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts.
It forms a dense groundcover, it positively shimmers and shines in the sunlight, and it is quite elegant.
The cultivar at Arnold Arboretum and growing in my garden is a dwarf variety called 'Gro Low', and it does exactly that -- it grows to only a foot high. It arches beautifully, and spreads easily, covering about 8 feet across when it gets going.
In autumn it turns orange and red and gives a pop of brilliance at ground level under everything else.
It is easy to grow. It wants dry poor soils, so it does well competing with tree roots, as long as the canopy is high enough for full sun. It will hold a steep bank or cover a problem area.
Rhus aromatica is not even in the same family as poison ivy, but is is related to to other sumacs. I just can't see the resemblance.
Wild staghorn sumac grows here along roadsides and on my back hill, where all weeds think they are welcome. Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is a tree that is a colonizer of disturbed forest land, and it forms huge stands wherever the woods are open. It likes the rocky waste areas where forest hardwoods have a hard time filling in.
Unlike fragrant sumac's classy little rounded glossy leaves, staghorn sumac has big primordial fronds of compound leaves.
The slender trunks are covered in a soft fuzz, which looks like the furriness of a young deer's antlers. It does, really.
Staghorn. Antler fuzz.
Trees with compound leaves look deeply primitive to me. Staghorn sumac's big fronds look prehistoric, especially growing among the quiet, reserved maples and ashes and beeches of a New England woodland.
They do have brilliant red fall color, and I'll admit I like them when they turn scarlet ahead of all other forest trees on my back hillside.
While the fall color is nice, it's hard for me to get past those jungle looking Cretaceous period leaflets.
Staghorn sumac gets fiery red drupes that stand up like rockets all over the tree in fall. Rhus aromatica gets cute little red berries.
One is a primitive looking tree with compound leaves and fruit that looks like a weapon, the other an elegant groundcover with pretty rounded leaves and decorative berries.
Alike but so different -- fragrant sumac is not a toxic pest like the poison ivy it resembles, and does not resemble the staghorn sumac it is related to.