(Photos provided by Great Bear Native Plants, Map provided by USDA-NRCS)
In spring and summer flowers are what bring a lot of the color and life to gardens or natural areas, but in the fall it’s our native shrubs and trees that give us that same vibrancy. So today I’d like to highlight one of our favorite fall beauties here at Great Bear Native Plants, Rhus trilobata. This deciduous shrub commonly called oakleaf sumac is widespread throughout the western United States and the Great Plains. It’s range also extends up north into the Alberta and Saskatchewan Canadian provinces and south into Mexico. Oakleaf sumac grows in a wide variety of plant communities including shrublands, forests and grasslands. In mountainous regions it can be found growing in mountain brush as well as in conifer forests including pinyon-juniper woodland and ponderosa pine habitat. At lower elevations it can be found growing in riparian areas including streambanks and streamside terraces, canyon bottoms, floodplains, seeps, spring margins, hill slopes, and along talus slopes. Oakleaf sumac also pops up in disturbed areas such as pastures, roadsides and waste areas.
Oakleaf sumac can be somewhat varied in appearance. This variation is largely driven by the diversity of geographic locations and ecological conditions that oakleaf sumac can establish in. The species grows from 2 to 8 feet tall and can grow into a spreading, mound-like or erect form depending on what region it is in. Branches are brownish and relatively smooth when young and lighten to a gray color as the plants age. In the spring before the plants even leaf out for the year, oakleaf sumac plants produce clusters of creamy yellow flowers. The leaves of oakleaf sumac are trifoliate with leaflets irregularly lobed giving them a glossy dark green oak leaf-like appearance. In the fall, leaves turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red or maroon. The plants also produce sticky, red-orange fruits that ripen from August to October and have a lemony flavor.
Oakleaf sumac plays an important role to wildlife in the places where it grows. The cheerful orange-red fruits of oakleaf sumac persist into the fall and winter and provide a nourishing source of food for birds and small mammals particularly when other food sources become diminished. The species also has an interesting ethnobotanical history. Native Americans had a variety of uses for oakleaf sumac. Many parts of the plant including the fruit, shoots, leaves and twigs of oakleaf sumac were used for various purposes. Fruits were used for both food and medicine. The fresh fruits of oakleaf sumac were used to make a tart, lemonade-like drink. Flexible stems of the younger plants were used to create baskets. Plant parts were used to create natural dyes for clothing. Some tribes even smoked oak sumac leaves as a substitute for tobacco.
Oakleaf sumac has great potential as a restoration species and as an addition to backyard gardens or xeric landscaping projects. The species is drought tolerant, waterwise, and grows well-developed root systems making it highly suitable for restoration of disturbed grassland, shrubland or forest sites. Oakleaf sumac has also been used for windbreaks or mass plantings that help retain soil in windy places. Because it can resprout vigorously after fire, oakleaf sumac is also a good choice for a fire-prone environment. So if you are looking for a plant that can survive water, wind and fire pressures, and can provide excellent fall colors and winter interest to boot, consider oakleaf sumac a great choice.
A few other considerations when thinking about adding oakleaf sumac into your project: keep in mind that while oakleaf sumac will attract birds, butterflies and small mammals, it also attracts deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn which could be desirable or not depending on your situation and goals. This species is not related to poison sumac and does not produce oils that are irritating to the skin. Oakleaf sumac does have edible plant parts and has been used for dyeing and crafting purposes, making it versatile from an ethnobotanical perspective.
Plant in well-drained soil. This species is drought resistant/tolerant but does appreciate regular watering during the establishment phase, and periodic watering during prolonged droughts or dry times.
Oakleaf sumac is adapted to a variety of soils ranging from clayey to sandy and should be suitable for most soils.
Oakleaf sumac prefers sunny locations. For best performance, plant in full sun.
This species is vulnerable to ungulates. Consider caging new transplants to protect them from hungry deer, elk and sheep.
Rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopularum)
Wax currant (Ribes cereum)
Sagebrush species (Artemisia spp.)
Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)
Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis)
Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa secunda)
Dropseed species (Sporobolus spp.)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)