While Texas may not be known for its seasonal color, the prairie flame-leaf sumac remains an exception. During the months of November and December, this aptly named sumac lights up the roadsides with a fiery display of vivid color.
After the leaves drop you’ll see a beautiful, fractalesque, woody branching structure decorated with rusty-red fruits that are savored by song and game birds. In the summer months, creamy white clusters of flowers are covered with bees and butterflies.
Before European settlement, the central Texas plant community was dramatically different from what we see today. Sumac is a lasting reminder of days long gone when grasses dominated the central Texas landscape. Previously, this shrubby tree would commonly be found scattered amongst various species of native bunch grasses and other flowering plants. This ecosystem — what’s left of it — is incredibly adept at sequestering carbon and improving groundwater infiltration. Grassland habitat is critically important for the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that rely on it.
Flame-leaf sumac is very hardy and extremely drought tolerant. Make sure it has good drainage and receives adequate sunlight. It loves full sun, but can handle a little shade. Plant with other drought-tolerant natives such as sotol, agave, little bluestem grass,sideoats grama, gayfeather, purple skullcap, damianita and blackfoot daisy. Having a variety of plants in your garden will attract a variety of pollinating insects and birds.
If you prefer an evergreen, but similar plant you could try evergreen sumac (Rhus virens). It has similar flowers and fruits, but not the fall color of flame-leaf sumac. Plant this small tree alongside other native evergreens like cenizo, anaqua, Texas pistachio and mountain laurel to create a privacy screen or to hide an unsightly utility box.
If yard space is an issue, consider aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica). It has beautiful leaves that turn vibrant colors in the fall, comparable to the flame-leaf sumac. It also has similar fruit and flowers. This species usually stays about three feet tall and wide, plant it in full sun or partial shade.
Whatever your preference, there’s a native sumac out there for you. These are perfect plants for wildlife gardens as they support critically important species of birds and pollinators. Remember, right now is a perfect time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials!
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About our expert
Sarah Galvan is a conservation consultant and has been passionate about gardening since she was a child. She is an arborist, an herbalist, a Texas master naturalist and holds a native landscape certification. Before coming to SAWS, she worked as a native landscape designer where she focused on supporting native birds and pollinator populations. When she’s not answering garden questions or working on her biology degree she enjoys hiking, kayaking, bird and butterfly watching, and competing in plant identification competitions.
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