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Collin County Chapter

An Unsung Hero of Texas Gardens – The Fragrant Sumac

For some, the name “sumac” can conjure up negative connotations. Whether it was past encounters with Poison Sumac (not found in North Texas) or the invasive Chinese Sumac, many people hesitate to bring Sumacs into their gardens. However, Fragrant or Aromatic Sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a versatile native shrub, offering many virtues for both homeowners and wildlife. With its general availability at local nurseries and native plant sales, it is a plant worthy of consideration for your landscape.

Photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

A Closer Look at Rhus Aromatica

For those new to North Texas native plants, Fragrant Sumac is a deciduous shrub native to large portions of the United States, including North Texas. It typically reaches 2 – 6 feet tall and can sprawl to form a dense thicket. Its trifoliate leaves are reminiscent of clover. As autumn approaches, the foliage can become a blend of colors – orange, red, and purple. Plus, when its leaves and twigs are crushed, they release a citrusy aroma, adding another sensory benefit to your landscape.

In early spring, tiny yellow flowers emerge from the branch tips, followed by separate male and female flower clusters. In late summer, the female plants produce clusters of red berries that persist well into winter, adding color to your garden even during the winter. Their flowers may appear modest, but they play an essential role in supporting pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.

Finding a Home for Fragrant Sumac

This versatile shrub thrives in a variety of well-drained soils, adapting to sandy, loamy, and even clay. Sunny to partial shade locations are best for it to flourish. As a native Texan, Fragrant Sumac can tolerate droughts and requires minimal irrigation once established. This means less work for you and less strain on your water bill.

The most important factor in placing Aromatic Sumac is planning for its spreading nature. With its suckering tendencies, it is ideal for open areas where it can spread without infringing on other plants.

A Feast for Wildlife

Photo courtesy of Patrick Coin

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, Fragrant Sumac provides great value to Texas wildlife. The colorful berries provide a critical winter food source for numerous bird species, including Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Cedar Waxwings. Their dense growth habit offers an ideal habitat for small birds to nest and seek shelter. Small mammals like rabbits and squirrels also enjoy the fruit.

As mentioned earlier, the blooms attract pollinators, and are the larval hosts for the Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly.

Where to Plant This Native Texan

With its adaptability and hardiness, there are many options for incorporating Fragrant Sumac into your landscape – below are some ideas:

Photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
  • Foundation Planting: Use its compact size and vibrant fall foliage to add interest to the base of your home.
  • Privacy Screen: Its dense foliage and spreading habit make it ideal for creating natural privacy barriers.
  • Wildscaping: Introduce it to wildflower meadows or rocky slopes for a naturalized landscape aesthetic.
  • Erosion Control: Plant on slopes or hillsides to help prevent erosion due to its robust root system and ground-covering growth.
  • Pollinator Garden: Include it with other host and nectar plants to offer a consistent food source and shelter for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Benefits for Homeowners

Fragrant Sumac also offers multiple advantages for your home landscape:

  • Low Maintenance: Once established, it requires minimal watering and infrequent pruning.
  • Year-round Interest: Offers visual appeal throughout the year, from spring’s blooms and fragrant foliage to summer’s lush greenery and fall’s multi-hued display.
  • Unique Sensory Experience: The refreshing citrus scent of its leaves and branches adds a distinct dimension to your landscape.
  • Habitat Creation: By attracting wildlife, fragrant sumac adds life to your garden, enhancing its natural beauty.

Embrace the Sumac

Fragrant Sumac can offer your landscape a wealth of benefits. Its low maintenance requirements and adaptability make it a friend to both nature and homeowners. Rhus aromatica’s adaptability and resilience make it a wise addition to many growing locations throughout North Texas.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason