How to Grow Smooth Sumac in Your Garden

A common and beautiful wild shrub in the United States is Rhus glabra.

This plant is more commonly called Smooth sumac, White sumac, and Scarlet sumac. It is a member of the Anacardiaceae family (Cashews and Sumac).

Rhus glabra bears green-yellow cluster of flowers that appear during the summer months and attract bees, wasps, and butterflies.

In the late summer, Rhus glabra produces cones of bright red berries. These berries attract birds and other wildlife making it another great choice for a wild life garden.

With all that said, most people grow this plant for its amazing display of autumn foliage. Which helps bring splendid color to any garden.

Rhus glabra leaves turning red.
Rhus glabra leaves turning red. Picture by cultivar413 under CC licence.

It also provides privacy and can be the perfect wind barrier for any garden.

Gardener’s HQ Guide to Growing Rhus Glabra

Rhus glabra is a very common plant in the lower 48 states, where it can often be found growing in the prairies, in fields, and alongside roads.

If you would like to grow this attractive plant on your property then it can easily be grown from seeds.

Finding and Preparing Seeds

You can purchase Rhus glabra seeds online or you can gather from the plants themselves.

To gather seeds from the wild, you will need to collect the bright red berry heads in the fall (autumn).

Once harvested, place them on old newspaper and let them dry out.

Make sure you place them in a warm spot that is free from moisture.

Smoot.h Sumac  picture showing red terminal berries.
Smooth Sumac terminal berries with attractive red leaves. Image by Judy Gallagher under CC licence.

Separating the Seeds from the Berries

In the next step, you will need to separate the seeds from the berries.

Place them in a plastic bag and hit them against a hard surface. This will make it easy to extract the seeds from the berries.

Cleaning Seeds

Next, place the seeds in container of water.

Allow them to soak and then remove the ones that float, as these won’t be viable for planting.

Soak Overnight

After picking out the best possible seeds, return them to a container of warm water and allow them to soak for 12 hours or overnight.

In the morning, check the seeds to make sure they have swelled up.

Soil Type

When it comes to soil type, Rhus glabra is not very picky.

It will grow in many different soil types but you should avoid planting it in areas that are poorly drained.

Planting the Seeds

You will want to start your Rhus glabra seeds in a large pot. This will help them build a strong root system before they are transplanted directly in the garden.

When planting seeds, sow them on top of the soil and cover them with a thin layer of potting soil.

Water them and then place them in a warm area of the home.

Germination can take a few months so make sure you keep an eye on them.

If the soil becomes dried out, water them lightly.

Transplanting to The Garden

When your Rhus glabra plants are growing strong and become too big for the pots, it is time to transplant them in the garden.

Pick an area of the garden that has lots of space because these plants will grow very big compared to other plants. They well require a soil that has good drainage.

During planting, you will need to dig a hole large enough to accommodate the plant and use lots of rich mulch to help them get started.

Caring for Rhus Glabra

Once you have a well-established group of Rhus glabra plants in your garden, they require little care.

During very hot summer months, you may need to water them but keep in mind, they like well-drained soil. Also, you may need to prune them from time to time because they may become overgrown if not kept in check.

Warning: When planting Rhus glabra in the garden, make sure you are careful where you plant it.

This plant species can be invasive and can take over large areas of land if not properly controlled.

Growing and Care Guide Facts

Scientific Name: Rhus glabra.

Common Name (s): Smooth sumac, Scarlet sumac. Vinegar tree.

Growing Zone (USA / UK Hardiness): USDA Zones 3 to 9 / UK and Europe H6 – hardy to about -20°C (-4°F).

Best used for: Great plant for bringing color to the garden, and for growing in areas of drought. Shrub forms can make a good hedge or ornamental plant, especially in the autumn when the leaves turn red. Performs well on slopes and rocky soils.

Plant Details

Life Cycle / Plant Type: Deciduous or evergreen. Bushy habit.

Plant Height: Shrub form: 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 2.5 m); trees up to 25 feet (7.5 m).

Plant Spread: Shrubs have a similar spread to their height.

Blooms: Natively in June or July.

Flower Details: inconspicuous. Yellow/green terminal flowers.

Leaf Foliage: Pinnate. Dark green. Turns to a very attractive red or purple in autumn.

Fruit: Late summer. Red berries, spherical, non-poisonous. Fruits are long lasting often remaining on the tree to early winter.

Growing Conditions and Location

Best Light Conditions: Ideally likes at least 6 hours of light. Does not like shade.

Suitable Soil Types: Poor to Average. Sandy and Gravel soils.

Soil Moisture: Moist, Good drainage.

Sowing, planting, and Propagation: Take Semi-rip cuttings from the end of summer to the middle of autumn. Plant out in the spring. Or from Seed (germination is enhanced by fire or by being digested by rabbits and game birds). Plants take about three years before they will bloom.

Growing in pots and containers: Requires a large pot. Plant in the spring or autumn.

Cultivars: Laciniata (good for containers).

Further Information

Makes a great plant to grow to attract birds to the garden, the berries are especially loved by game birds such as Pheasant and Quail.

An early successional plant. Drought tolerant. Leaves attract deer. Fairly tolerant of alkaline soils.

Can be used to help prevent soil erosion. Flowers attract pollinating insects to the garden such as bees and wasps.

Further Reading and References

Family: Anacardiaceae, the cashew family or sumac family.

Closely Related Plant Species: Pistachia, Posion Oak, Mastic tree, Pistachio, Smoke tree.

Further Reading: USDA Plant Fact Sheet.

Rhus glabra in bloom.
Rhus glabra in the summer showing dark green pinnate leaves and terminal yellow green flowers. Image by Homer Edward Price, CC.

Common Questions

What is Smooth sumac?

It is a native shrub of Eastern parts of the USE that is often used for hedging, screening, or mass planting.

How tall are Rhus glabra?

Shrubs typically reach about 8 or 9 feet (2.5 m), whereas when grown as a tree they may reach heights of about 25 feet (7.5 m), with more compact forms being available to about 15 feet (4.5 m) in height and width.

When do Rhus glabra bloom?

Smooth sumac plants carry terminal clusters of yellow to green flowers in early to mid-summer.

Is Smooth sumac invasive?

Yes and No, although native to prairies, Rhus glabra can be very invasive to roadsides and gardens, and is thus classed as a weed by gardeners in many areas (even though it is a native plant).

Ideally grow them in containment to prevent spread. That said they are often out-competed by other trees.

I hope that you enjoyed this guide on how to grow Rhus glabra. You may also enjoy the following closely related garden plant growing guides: How to Grow Chinese Pistache and Ginkgo biloba.