General: Sumac Family (Anacardiaceae). Smooth sumac can be a shrub or small tree growing up to 3 meters in height. Smooth sumac forms thickets from root suckers. The stems and branches are hairless and covered with a whitish waxy coating. The leaves are alternate and pinnately compound (3-5 dm long). Smooth sumac has 11-31 leaflets that are lanceolate to oblong-lanceolate (7-9 cm long). The leaflets taper to a point at the tip and are rounded at the base. The margins are sharply serrated. The upper surface is dark green and lustrous. The lower surface is covered with a whitish waxy coating. Smooth sumac has a branched, racemose inflorescence with flowers maturing from the bottom up (10-25 cm long). The flowers have a greenish color. The drupes have a flattened-globe shape (3.5-4.5 mm long) and are covered with red, sticky hairs. The seeds are yellowish in color and smooth (3-3.5 mm long).
Distribution: For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Habitat: Smooth sumac is found in open woodlands, prairies, on dry rocky hillsides, and in canyons.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regional Distribution in the Western United States
This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):
1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
Occurrence in North America
|total = 1.5130 + 0.62920 D2H||0.974||0.0001||7||1.587|
|foliage = 1.2388 + 0.44405 D2H||0.974||0.0001||7||1.126|
|stem = 0.27415 + 0.18516 D2H||0.964||0.0001||7||0.548|
Sy.x = standard error
H = height
D = diameter measured at about 1.0 cm from ground level
Broad-scale Impacts of Plant Response to Fire
Smooth sumac was among 50 understory species examined for changes in relation to spring burn periodicity in a Minnesota oak savanna dominated by northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) and bur oak. The table below shows average smooth sumac stem frequency per circular plot, each plot with a radius of 18.5 feet (5.6 m). The author did not draw specific conclusions for smooth sumac, but the numbers suggest persistence of the species despite burn treatments .
Plot Fire # of Mean stem
treatment burns frequency/plot
1a 2 yrs burn/2 yrs no burn 7 0
1 4 yrs burn/2 yrs no burn 10 0
3 Annual burns 14 2
4 Annual burns 16 13
5 3 yrs burn/3 yrs no burn 9 6
6 2 yrs burn/1 yr no burn 10 13
8 2 yrs burn/2 yrs no burn 7 8
Control unburned 0 3
Anderson and others  reported an increase in smooth sumac during the
first 10 years after an early spring fire in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Kruse and Higgins  found an increase in smooth sumac following spring burning in northern mixed grass prairies.
Increases are also reported following spring fires in South Dakota [96,],
Kansas [27,75], Indiana [8,80], Connecticut  and Minnesota . Adams and others  report an increase in canopy cover following both March and July fires on separate tallgrass prairie sites in Oklahoma. It is noteworthy that in the same study other woody plants, including 2 Rhus species, were eliminated by the fires.
Repeated annual fires during the late spring may reduce the average
height of smooth sumac plants. On Kansas pastures, plants were reduced
in height after 20 years of annual late spring fires, with most
shrubs growing to only 12 to 18 inches (30.5-45.7 cm) in height.
Although smooth sumac was stunted by these fires, its density increased . Abrams  reported a decrease in smooth sumac canopy cover after 2 consecutive April burns in the understory of a mature oak woodland.
In a study on the effects of an April 1984 fire on smooth sumac in the Kansas tallgrass prairie, Knapp  found reductions in height and production of woody, leaf, and reproductive tissue in August 1984. The burned and unburned sites had been free of fire for at least 5 years prior to fire treatment, so the 2 populations were considered similar. Smooth sumac aboveground biomass and fruit production was greater in unburned populations in the August following burning. However, a significant (P less than 0.05) postfire increase in shoot density resulted in similar leaf area indices in burned and control plots in August 1984.
In a 20-year study of the effects of fire frequency on Minnesota oak savanna herbs and shrubs, Tester [82,83] determined that increased fire frequency tended to increase the density of true prairie shrubs and decrease the density of non-prairie shrubs, though in the case of smooth sumac, cover estimates were not positively correlated with burn frequency.
Bowles and others  report a decrease in smooth sumac cover attributed to an 11-year fire management program in a peatland prairie fen in Illinois. A total of 8 dormant-season burns (4 in spring and 4 in fall) were conducted supplemented by shrub cutting.
A winter burn in South Carolina was reported to increase smooth sumac vigor the following spring .
The following Research Project Summaries provide information on prescribed fire and postfire response of plant community species, including smooth sumac, that was not available when this species review was written:
Plant Response to Fire
The response of smooth sumac to fire appears to vary considerably depending on the burn frequency, season, and postburn management techniques. Smooth sumac spreads readily from rhizomes following fire [43,66], but growth may be stunted by frequent fire. Spring fires increase smooth sumac cover. Consecutive late spring fires may be particularly effective in reducing the height of these shrubs, although plants often increase in number after such fires .
Tree with adventitious bud/root crown/soboliferous species root sucker
Tall shrub, adventitious bud/root crown
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Initial offsite colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Smooth sumac sprouts vigorously from underground rhizomes following fire [66,78,97]. Since rhizomes are buried at depths of 3 to 12 inches (7.6-30.5 cm) , overlying soil probably protects them from most fires.
Although vegetative reproduction is the primary mode of reestablishment after fire, smooth sumac may also reproduce through seed. Evidence suggests that some species of Rhus seedbank with seed stored in the humus layer. These seeds germinate when fire creates seedbed and open canopy [1,63].
Smooth sumac occurs in ecosystems and plant communities with varying FIRE REGIMES. The range of fire intervals reported for some species that dominate communities where smooth sumac occurs are listed below. To learn more about the FIRE REGIMES in these ecosystems and communities, refer to the FEIS summary for the dominant plant species, under "Fire Ecology Or Adaptations."
|Community or Ecosystem||Scientific Name of Dominant Species||Fire Return Interval Range in Years|
|1. prairie||Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii||1-6 |
|2. pitch pine||Pinus rigida||6-25 |
|3. oak-hickory||Quercus-Carya spp.||50-100 |
More info for the terms: climax, fire suppression, shrub, shrubs, succession
Smooth sumac is a climax indicator in a number of shrub and grassland communities [22,32,84]. Three vegetation associations typified by smooth sumac are found on colluvial or alluvial soils in canyons in the Columbia Basin Province described in Franklin and Dyrness ; Their understories are dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), or red threeawn (Aristida purpurea). Daubenmire  identified these 3 hypothetical climaxes, but concluded that grazing effectively reduced them to a smooth sumac/cheatgrass community. The patchy distribution of smooth sumac stands in the Washington steppe and their restriction to sandy soils warrant designating them as one or more edaphic climaxes.
Smooth sumac is a prominent species in prairie and oak savanna communities where fire has been suppressed [38,49,80,83]. It is relatively intolerant of shade .
In a 1981 central Oklahoma tallgrass prairie studied for old field succession following different initial plowing treatments beginning in 1949, vegetation development in 4 hypothesized stages from pioneer weeds to mature prairie was heterogeneous and unpredictable. Smooth sumac was present in unplowed plots and also appeared in the other 2 plots that developed to mature prairie following one 1949 plowing and 5 annual plowings from 1949 to 1953. The authors [20,21] characterize the succession to mature prairie as "very rapid," at least in part due to continual fire suppression. They predict that woody shrubs, including smooth sumac and flameleaf sumac (Rhus copallina), Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), and coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) will continue to increase, and the upland forest trees post oak (Quercus stellata) and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica ) may eventually dominate the site. The authors note that in the absence of fire, mature prairie vegetation is not the climax on the coarse textured soils of the region, and that fire is essential to maintenance of tallgrass prairie. Please note, however, that the Fire Effects section of this report discusses a number of prescribed burns, especially in the spring, which increased smooth sumac.
Li and others  report that the 1.5 months required for flower, fruit and seed development in smooth sumac is much faster than that reported for other members of the Anacardiaceae family. Flowers may develop into conspicuous red fruits after only 6 weeks.
Smooth sumac produces at least some seed nearly every year . The seeds are widely distributed by many species of birds and mammals . There is evidence that seeds persist in the soil seedbank [1,6]. Smooth sumac seed has averaged up to 97% sound, depending on the lot examined . Germination is inhibited by the hard, impervious hull and seedcoat [37,41,50]. Brinkman  observed that germination was greatest and most rapid under continuous light. A constant temperature regime of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 oC) and alternating warm and cool temperatures both promoted good germination, whereas a constant temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 oC) prevented germination.
Smooth sumac also readily reproduces vegetatively. It spreads through rhizomes to form large, dense thickets [16,45]. The rhizomes may produce new shoots as far as 30 feet (1-9 m) from the parent plant .
Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)
Immediate Effect of Fire
Sumacs (Rhus spp.) generally tolerate fire . Fires in the Great Plains rarely kill smooth sumac and some authorities state that smooth sumac actually depends on fire for survival . Its propensity for sprouting minimizes fire's damaging effects.
Life History and Behavior
Smooth sumac renews growth early in the year , with flowers developing before the leaves . Flowering dates are as follows :
Location Beginning of Flowering End of Flowering
CO May July
MT July July
ND July July
UT May July
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status (e.g. threatened or endangered species, state noxious status, and wetland indicator values).
Pests and potential problems
If grown in its native habitat and using a local seed stock, the smooth sumac should not be prone to debilitating pests or problems.
Management Requirements: Although sumacs are native North American taxa, they can present distinct problems in wetlands, prairies, and rangeland. Sumac encroachment in bogs has been encouraged by nitrate and orthophosphate laden runoff from adjacent farmland (Whitney 1981) and is shading out characteristic bog species (Armstrong and Heston 1982). Aldous (1934) discusses the spread of R. glabra in native prairies in KS. Sumac dominance in rangelands has been shown to increase under heavy grazing pressure (Hetzer and McGregor 1951) and under prescribe burning management (Anderson et al. 1970).
R. glabra is susceptible to a number of control practices. Cutting for 2 or 3 succesive years shortly after flowering (late spring-early summer) can help control the spread of sumac since this is the time when carbohydrate reserves are the lowest and the species has a reduced capacity to respond to top-removal (Aldous 1929, Launchbaug and Owensby 1978). Kline (1982) demonstrated that cutting 5 times in a period of 2 yrs reduced sumac density by 2/3 (compared to a control). Cutting can also be used in combination with herbicides or prescribed burns. Waller (1982) suggests cutting to control young (<5 yrs) stems and cutting and treating with glyphosate to control older stems. Aldous (1929) found that R. glabra responds vigorously to spring burns. His results have been confirmed elsewhere for both R. glabra (Hulbert 1978) and R. copallina (Anderson 1982). Anderson (1982) reported that Toxicodendron (=Rhus) radicans did not resprout following a spring burn. Wright (1972) further noted that the effect of fire on shrubs needs to be evaluated in relation to the ecological potential of the community. In healthy or non-grazed grasslands, competition with grasses,drought, and fire may have a cumulative effect that results in preventing shrub dominance. In heavily grazed grasslands, however, the reduced competition between shrubs and grasses may negate any positive effect burning had on shrub control. Because sumac and perennial grass dominants reserve carbohydrates are depleted and stored at the same time, prescribed burns to favor one will also favor the other. However, Martin (1981) suggested that combining spring burning with mid-summer mowing could help control R. glabra. Repeated cutting and burning had an additional advantage of restoring prairie plants under sumac clones, and these served the dual purpose of shading out sumac sprouts and providing a better fuel base for additional burns (Martin 1981).
Herbicides may also be used. The optimal spray period for any plant can be determined by the maximum gradient of sugars from leaves to roots, as this represents the period when the plant is manufacturing and storing food for the next year's growth. R. glabra may be controlled by foliar sprays of Tordon (0.25 to 0.50 lb/A) ortriclopyr (4 to 8 lb/A), in early to mid-summer (Churchill et al. 1976, Fears 1980). Glyphosate, a biodegradable herbicide, has been successfully used to control T. radicans.
See James E. Evans, Natural Areas J. Vol.3 No.1. for complete details.
Management Programs: One of the few remaining sites of the federally endangered Iliamna remota in Indiana is threatened by shading from R.glabra. In June 1982, sumac was cut from two 10 sq. m. areas at this site. It was found that by that time, I. remota plants were 2 to 3 feet tall and difficult to work around without damaging. J. Aldrich (pers. comm., 1983) proposed cutting in March or April, a procedure which will prevent R. glabra from growing much over 3 feet tall and hence prevent shading of I. remota. It also might prevent use of the area by off-road vehicles.
In a 1983 review of management practices for controlling smooth sumac, Evans  determined that smooth sumac is susceptible to a number of control practices, including cutting 2 or 3 successive years shortly after flowering or cutting 5 times over a period of 3 years. The author also indicates that cutting can be used in combination with herbicides and prescribed burning. As discussed in the Fire Effects section of this report, spring burning alone often causes smooth sumac to proliferate. Evans recommends combining cutting and burning and suggests herbicides where appropriate.
Packard  reports that cutting mature stems at flowering helps control smooth sumac, but may be less effective in the case of those which had been previously cut or partially burned at a less sensitive time.
Hutchinson  reports that smooth sumac is one of the primary invaders of hill prairies in Illinois, where dense clones eliminate other native species. He suggests however, that it not be eliminated totally from communities, and should be left in ravines and draws. Removal of shrubs by cutting is recommended in July, followed by sprout cutting in August. He also indicates that fire may be a useful control (see Fire Management Considerations section).
The general response of smooth sumac to browsing is unclear. Wambolt
 reported that it is a decreaser, whereas other researchers have
classified it as an increaser . Still others report that on many
sites its response is unpredictable . Daubenmire  followed the progress of disturbed smooth sumac thickets in a western Washington palouse prairie site and concluded that the thickets are highly dynamic under "heavy" grazing. One large thicket thinned out over 10 years, while another became established and spread in a different place.
Though treatment with herbicides increased both crude protein and dry matter digestibility in several Oklahoma shrub forage species, only dry matter digestibility increased significantly (P less than 0.05) in smooth sumac .
Please contact your local agricultural extension specialist or county weed specialist to learn what works best in your area and how to use it safely. Always read label and safety instructions for each control method. Trade names and control measures appear in this document only to provide specific information. USDA NRCS does not guarantee or warranty the products and control methods named, and other products may be equally effective.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
These materials are readily available from commercial plant sources. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”
This plant may become weedy or invasive in some regions or habitats and may displace desirable vegetation if not properly managed. Please consult with your local NRCS Field Office, Cooperative Extension Service office, or state natural resource or agriculture department regarding its status and use. Weed information is also available from the PLANTS Web site at plants.usda.gov.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Other uses and values
Smooth sumac is planted as an ornamental because of its colorful fall foliage . It is recommended in Utah for xeriscaping due to its drought tolerance . It is also planted as a shelterbelt species and on depleted game ranges [16,67] and is recommended for use in "living" snow fences where wildlife habitat improvement is an objective .
Laboratory analyses of smooth sumac plant tissue indicate the presence of antifungal and antibacterial compounds [71,59].
Native Americans traditionally made hot and cold beverages , dyes, and medicines from smooth sumac fruits. Young sprouts were eaten in salads .
Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites
Smooth sumac is rated low in potential for short-term revegetation and moderate in potential for long-term revegetation . It is useful in controlling soil erosion and for roadside planting . Smooth sumac shrubs were among 17 native species successfully planted on an abandoned landfill in New York, chosen because of their value to wildlife. Survival of planted smooth sumac shrubs was greater than 50% on reclaimed strip mines in Texas . In Montana it is propagated commercially  and has been used with limited success to revegetate road cuts .
Smooth sumac recovered naturally in disturbed stream channels in Tennessee  and abandoned coal mines in West Virginia [48,74] though the authors did not indicate whether the regeneration was from seed or rhizomes.
Propagation: Rootstocks can be easily propagated  and generally survive even when transplanted onto very severe sites .
Seed production and handling characteristics are described as "good" . Smooth sumac seed remains viable 5 or more years in storage . Seed stored for 10 years exhibited 63% germination following sulfuric acid treatments . Sulfuric acid treatments aid germination [15,16,41,44].
Smooth sumac, which often grows in dense thickets, provides cover for many birds and mammals [24,12,53,72,92]. Cover value has been rated as follows : CO ND UT WY Pronghorn ---- ---- Poor Poor Elk ---- ---- Fair Fair Mule deer ---- ---- Fair Fair White-tailed deer ---- Fair ---- Fair Small mammals Fair Fair ---- Fair Small nongame birds Fair ---- Good Fair Upland game birds ---- ---- Fair Fair Waterfowl ---- ---- Poor Poor
Smooth sumac is rated poor in both energy and protein value . Soper and others  observed significant (P less than 0.05) seasonal fluctuations in smooth sumac nutritional value and an increase in dry matter digestibility after treatment with herbicides.
Smooth sumac fruits are palatable to many species of birds and small
mammals. Wild turkey, gray partridge, and mourning dove also feed on
the fruits .
Smooth sumac is moderately palatable to wintering mule deer [66,78]. In general, however,
smooth sumac is relatively unpalatable to most big game and domestic livestock. Overall
palatability is as follows : CO ND UT WY
Cattle Poor ---- Poor Poor
Domestic sheep Poor ---- Poor Poor
Horses Poor ---- Poor Poor
Pronghorn ---- ---- Poor Poor
Bighorn ---- ---- ---- ----
Elk ---- ---- Poor Poor
Mt. goat ---- ---- ---- ----
Mule deer ---- ---- Poor Fair
White-tailed deer ---- Fair Fair ----
Small mammals ---- ---- Fair Good
Small nongame birds ---- ---- Fair Fair
Upland game birds ---- ---- Fair Fair
Waterfowl ---- ---- Poor Poor
Importance to Livestock and Wildlife
Birds, insects, and mammals consume smooth sumac fruits and leaves [9,69,81,95]. Because the drupes persist through the fall and winter months, smooth sumac provides a ready food source when other foods are scarce or unavailable. It is browsed by deer, particularly during the winter months when more preferred browse is scarce . This species provides little forage for domestic livestock .
Ethnobotanic: This was a widely used species among Native American tribes. The uses included the making of a root and leaf tea to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and mouth/throat ulcers. The leaves of the plant were smoked for asthma. The blossoms were used by the Chippewa in a mouthwash for teething children. Comanche children enjoyed the sour acid taste of the fruits and leaves were added to tobacco for smoking by adults. Dye was also created from various parts of the smooth sumac. The fruits were used to make red dyes and the inner bark used to make yellow dyes.
Stewardship Overview: In healthy or non-grazed grasslands, competition with grasses,drought, and fire may have a cumulative effect that results in preventing shrub dominance. Where Rhus glabra needs to be managed, however, cutting for 2 or 3 succesive years shortly after flowering (late spring-early summer) can help control the spread of sumac. Cutting can also be used in combination with herbicides or prescribed burns.
Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) is a species of sumac in the family Anacardiaceae, native to North America, from southern Quebec west to southern British Columbia in Canada, and south to northern Florida and Arizona in the United States and Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico.
One of the easiest shrubs to identify throughout the year (unless mistaken for Rhus vernix, poison sumac, in the absence of mature fruit) smooth sumac has a spreading, open-growing shrub growing up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) tall, rarely to 5 metres (16 ft). The leaves are alternate, 30–50 cm long, compound with 11-31 leaflets, each leaflet 5–11 cm long, with a serrated margin. The leaves turn scarlet in the fall. The flowers are tiny, green, produced in dense erect panicles 10–25 centimetres (3.9–9.8 in) tall, in the spring, later followed by large panicles of edible crimson berries that remain throughout the winter. The buds are small, covered with brown hair and borne on fat, hairless twigs. The bark on older wood is smooth and grey to brown.
In late summer it sometimes forms galls on the underside of leaves, caused by the parasitic sumac leaf gall aphid, Melaphis rhois. The galls are not harmful to the tree.
Names and Taxonomy
Rocky Mountain sumac
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