Sow Sumac for Seasonal Color

Sarah Galvan

Texas may not be known for its seasonal color, but apparently nobody told sumac. Winter brings rust-red fruit to its woody branches and creamy white blooms beckon bees and butterflies come summertime.

While Texas may not be known for its seasonal color, the prairie flame-leaf sumac remains an exception. During November and December, this aptly named native illuminates roadsides with a fiery display of vivid color.

After the leaves drop you’ll see the intricate, 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.

Sumac is a lasting reminder of days long gone when bunch 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 habitats are critically important for the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that rely on them.

Flame-leaf sumac is 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 sotolagavelittle bluestem grasssideoats gramagayfeatherpurple skullcapdamianita 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 bold color of flame-leaf sumac. Plant this small tree alongside other native evergreens like cenizo, anaquaTexas pistachio and mountain laurel to create a privacy screen or hide an unsightly utility box.

If yard space is an issue, consider aromatic sumac(Rhus aromatica). Comparable to the flame-leaf sumac, it has beautiful leaves that turn vibrant colors in the fall. It also has similar fruit and flowers. This species usually stays about three to seven feet tall and as wide, depending on site conditions. 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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