November 27, 2012

Alike But Different

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.

 

26 comments:

  1. Hmmmm I wasn't familiar with this plant. If I had lots of room I would get this beauty started. I like those fuzzy stems of the Staghorn Sumac. This plant draws all sorts of wildlife to it. It is another plant I would like to have if I had the room.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lisa, fragrant sumac does take up some room, but it is low, so it can be put in under trees and under shrubs. Still, it will form a large spreading stand so it needs a little space!

      Delete
  2. Rhus aromatica is a great plant. Even the more common Staghorn Sumac is a great plant. I'm surprised that so many people just see it as a weed plant.It is a beautiful and hardy native plant that deserves more credit.
    It is interesting how many poison ivy "look alikes" there are.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Forest Keeper, it really does deserve more credit. I started to see rhus Gro Low in nurseries this past year, so as more people get familiar with this plant, they will become fans.

      Delete
  3. I love all forms of Sumac...you just can't beat that fall color!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Scott, I like plants for their fall color more than for their flowers. That makes sumac a winner for me too!

      Delete
  4. Then there's Tiger Eye Sumac...which I love!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Marie, I was going to mention Tiger Eye because it is a very nice, small version of staghorn sumac. I don't grow it, but I have seen specimens and it does redeem staghorn sumac in my mind!

      Delete
  5. I bought some 'GroLow' but ended up giving it to a friend when I realized I didn't have as much room for it as I thought I did. Beautiful plant!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tammy, too bad you gave yours away! Time to find a little area under a tree or beneath a shrub and put Gro Low in. It really is beautiful.

      Delete
  6. I have always liked Staghorn sumac; I think the leaves are beautiful! I also like the fragrant sumac you featured very much. I will have to be on the lookout for it here. I would love to have it in my garden.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Deborah, It would make a great addition to the woodsy shrubby look of your gardens!

      Delete
  7. I never would have known these were related! I'm a huge fan of staghorn sumac myself, love the intertwining branches of this shrub, not to mention the berries and fall colour. Your groundcover looks interesting too though, love that it turns colour in fall as well. Is it native to your area?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Marguerite, fragrant sumac is native to eastern North America, and hardy as far north as zone 3. A lot to love about this plant!

      Delete
  8. Never heard of this little creature and from you extensive profile I wish I had years ago. The Arnold embankment is truly impressive. Maybe some day you'll see the fall color. Would blow us all away, no doubt.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patrick, it seems that fragrant sumac is only now becoming common in nurseries around here. Few carried it before, and very few gardeners knew about it I think. But in the past year I do notice it in a lot of places now.

      Delete
  9. Your Gro Lo Rhus aromatica must look gorgeous right about now. I like any plant that brightens things up this time of the year!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rosemary, The Grow Lo sumacs did look lovely earlier in the autumn, but right now they are woody stems, with their leaves down. A light dusting of snow yesterday made them look nice!

      Delete
  10. I was just looking for something to plant under my cedar in lieu of a fothergilla (which I think would get outcompeted). Thank you, psychic gardener friend! This is now on my shopping list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heather, So glad you found inspiration here! Be sure there is enough sun under your cedar for this plant, it will want some good sunshine most of the day.

      Delete
  11. Laurrie, thank you for sharing this information. I know sumac and now I love this one - fragrant. I've read in Encyclopedia about sumac Rhus aromatica, it has no poison and is very hardy in our climate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nadezda, I am glad I could introduce you to a new sumac!

      Delete
  12. If you didn't convince me before, you had me when you showed the groundcover sumac in fall--gorgeous!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rose, oh good, I'm glad a made a convert!

      Delete
  13. Hey Laurrie - How much room would you say the Gro-Low needs to roam?

    I have some space I'd like to fill in a foundation bed, but there are other (small) shrubs and perennials in the bed, and I'm worried that the Gro-Low would romp all over them?

    I know Gro-Low is supposed to stretch ~8 feet wide, but does it grow that much in a year or is the growth rate more moderate (say 1-2 feet per year)? If so, do you think I could trim it back in winter and keep it within a 4-5 ft radius?

    Also, you mentioned that your Gro-Low had dropped its leaves by late November. Is it late to leaf out in the spring or does it get new leaves early on? Just trying to figure out how long I'd be staring at bare stems...

    Thanks!! Your Gro-Low looks B-E-A-UTIFUL :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aaron, Gro Low spreads pretty quickly. In two years the healthiest of mine have a spread of four feet. A few are smaller, sited in less friendly spots I think. But where they are sunny and dry they do expand. I think by year 3 they will be 6 - 8 feet wide.They get big arching branches that rise up two feet, but are easily trimmed if you want a lower, tidier look.

      I asked one of the gardeners at Missouri Botanical Garden and they said you can cut rhus aromatica and trim it back. They do that annually on a patch of Gro Low that they have in a small border and it keeps it smaller.

      Rhus aromatica is very late to leaf out in spring, mid to late May here in northern Connecticut. Little yellow flowers come first and they are pretty in early to mid May, then the leaves pop out by the third week of May.

      Delete

Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.