It happens every autumn. Huge sweeps of straggly, undistinguished shrubs that grew unnoticed in unkempt fields are suddenly, gloriously, ornamental. The long almost palmlike fronds of leaves shine bright red with hints of yellow and orange. The branches spread like candelabra holding up huge crimson fruit clusters that keep glowing long after leafdrop, when all the world is gray. No wonder gardeners think about bringing sumac in from the wild.
Sumac grows everywhere, all the way from zone 2 to zone 9. It grows in dry soil, poor soil, moist soil, near-bog, bright sun, and part shade. It spreads by seed and by underground runners that can travel 20 feet or more in search of a good spot to make a new clump of sumac. But if there is also a lawn anywhere nearby, there will be adequate local control as long as you keep mowing.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is the most common roadside attraction. It’s fuller and more readily clump-forming than staghorn sumac (R. typhina), named for the velvety down that covers every branch. Smooth sumac tops out at about 8 to 10 feet, staghorn at 12 to 16 feet.
Fragrant sumac (R. aromatica) is shorter, at 3 to 4 feet, and bushier, more like a garden plant. If you decide to bring sumac into your garden or prairie, no matter which type you choose you will need both male and female plants if you want fruits. Sumacs are available through nurseries that specialize in native plants, and some large garden centers will order them for you if you ask.
Note: it’s always a good idea to check whether a plant is considered an invasive species in your state before transplanting from an area where the plant is growing wild. In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources provides a free guide to invasive species here: DNR INVASIVE SPECIES GUIDE