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Polecat Bush Rhus aromatica

Previously known as:

  • Lobadium aromaticum
Phonetic Spelling
roos a-ro-MAT-ik-a
Description

The fragrant sumac is a dense, rambling, low spreading groundcover or low spreading deciduous shrub. It reaches a height of 2 to feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. It spreads by root suckers and forms colonies and thickets. In mass plantings, it is excellent for stabilizing banks and slopes.  In the early spring, small yellow flowers appear at the twig tips before the foliage appears. Its green leaves of spring and summer transition to beautiful shades of orange, red, or reddish-purple in the fall. The leaves have a lemony scent when crushed. There are male and female flowers that may appear on the same or a different plant. The female flowers produce small clusters of red berries in late summer which attract wildlife. This shrub is a member of the Anacardiaceae or cashew family.

Fragrant sumac is native to North America from eastern Canada to Mexico. It is found in open woods and thickets. 

The genus name. Rhus is an old Greek name for Sumac or rhous. The epithet, aromatic, means fragrant.

Fragrant sumac is best grown in full sun to partial shade and in moist to dry, well-drained soils. They prefer acidic soils but are tolerant of most soil types except for poorly drained areas. The stems will root easily when they come in contact with the soil. They may also be propagated by seed.

This plant has many benefits, including fall color, and is tolerant to drought, erosion, black walnut, rabbit, clay soil, dry soil, and shallow rocky soil. Fragrant sumac is smaller and less aggressive than Smooth Sumac and Staghorn Sumac. The flowers and drupes appear earlier on Fragrant Sumac than they do on any other species.

Fragrant sumac is frequently used on embankments to stabilize the soil or in areas where the soil is poor. It may also be found in naturalized areas or native plant gardens.

Seasons of Interest:

Bloom:  Early Spring    Foliage:  Spring, Summer, and Fall     Fruits:  Late Summer

Quick ID Hints:

  • multi-stemmed, creeping, spreading groundcover or erect and mounding deciduous shrub
  • bark is textured and reddish-brown
  • stems have a zigzag form, brown, pubescent when young, and transition to gray with age
  • glossy green to bluish-green, 3 leaflets, terminal leaf larger than lateral leaves, coarsely toothed, lemony scent
  • short spikes of yellowish-green blooms about 1-inch long, male flower forms catkins, and female flower forms short panicle at the end of the branch
  • fruits are hairy, 0.25-inch, ovoid drupes that ripen to bright red

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems:  The fragrant sumac has no serious insect or disease problems. They may be susceptible to leaf spots, rust, scales, aphids, and mites. Nipple galls may affect the foliage appearance. The shrub is reportedly susceptible to vascular wilt.

VIDEO created by Grant L. Thompson for “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines for Landscaping” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University.

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscapes:
Woodland Backyard Garden Walk
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Gro-low'
    Great for slopes and erosion control; plant is under 3 feet tall but spreads about 8 feet
  • 'Konza'
    Disease resistant, superior growth form, and wildlife cover
  • var. trilobata
'Gro-low', 'Konza', var. trilobata
Tags:
#deciduous#full sun tolerant#drought tolerant#moths#cover plant#low maintenance#spring flowers#fall interest#rabbit resistant#erosion control#nighttime garden#native garden#playground plant#spring interest#food source summer#allelopathic#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#piedmont mountains UPL#coastal UPL#rocky soils tolerant#clay soils tolerant#bird friendly#dry soils tolerant#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#moth larvae#partial shade tolerant#black walnut toxicity tolerant#Audubon#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Gro-low'
    Great for slopes and erosion control; plant is under 3 feet tall but spreads about 8 feet
  • 'Konza'
    Disease resistant, superior growth form, and wildlife cover
  • var. trilobata
'Gro-low', 'Konza', var. trilobata
Tags:
#deciduous#full sun tolerant#drought tolerant#moths#cover plant#low maintenance#spring flowers#fall interest#rabbit resistant#erosion control#nighttime garden#native garden#playground plant#spring interest#food source summer#allelopathic#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#piedmont mountains UPL#coastal UPL#rocky soils tolerant#clay soils tolerant#bird friendly#dry soils tolerant#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#moth larvae#partial shade tolerant#black walnut toxicity tolerant#Audubon#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Rhus
    Species:
    aromatica
    Family:
    Anacardiaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Native Americans used the root to produce a yellow dye. They used berries to make beverages. They also dried the leaves and mixed them with other plant leaves to form a smoking mixture. The leaves and bark were also used to tan leather.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    North America--Eastern Canada to Mexico
    Distribution:
    Native: United States: AL. AR, CT, DC, FL, GA, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, NE, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, OK, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, VT, VA, WV, and WS; Mexico--Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southwest; Canada--Ontario, Quebec. Introduced: Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan.
    Wildlife Value:
    The flower nectar attracts butterflies and Luna moths. Turkey, ruffed grouse, robins, and flickers, as well as small mammals like raccoons, possums, and chipmunks feed on the berries. This shrub provides cover for small mammals and birds.
    Play Value:
    Attracts Pollinators
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Wildlife Food Source
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    drought, erosion, black walnut, rabbit, clay soil, dry soil, and shallow rocky soil. Heat and drought tolerant.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 2 ft. 0 in. - 6 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 6 ft. 0 in. - 10 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Shrub
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Creeping
    Erect
    Mounding
    Multi-stemmed
    Spreading
    Growth Rate:
    Slow
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Shallow Rocky
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Dry
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5b, 5a, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Red/Burgundy
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Summer
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    Following the flowers, the female flower produces hairy drupes. They are ovoid, 0.25 inches in diameter, and turn red as they ripen. Each drupe contains a stone. The drupes are present from June to August.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Insignificant
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Size:
    1-3 inches
    Flower Description:
    Short spikes of flowers appear before the leaves. Each spike is up to 1 inch long. Each flower is greenish-yellow, short-tubular, and 1/8 inch long. They bloom from March to April for 1 to 2 weeks. There are male and female flowers that may occur on the same shrub or a different shrub. The plant may also have unisexual or bisexual flowers on the same plant. The male is in the form of catkins, and the female is a short cluster or panicle at the end of the branch.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Blue
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Glossy
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Orange
    Purple/Lavender
    Red/Burgundy
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Ovate
    Leaf Margin:
    Serrate
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are alternate, trifoliate (3 leaflets), glossy green to bluish-green, coarsely toothed, and ovate with a rounded base. The terminal leaflet is 1.5 to 3 inches long and the lateral leaves are oblique and half the size of the terminal leaf. The upper surface of the leaf may be smooth or finely pubescent. The undersides are sparsely pubescent to softly hairy. Each leaf is sessile or has a short petiole. The leaves have a lemony scent when crushed. They have an orange, red to reddish-purple fall color.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Light Brown
    Red/Burgundy
    Bark Description:
    The bark is textured and reddish-brown.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gray/Silver
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Form:
    Zig Zags
    Stem Surface:
    Hairy (pubescent)
    Stem Description:
    Young stems are brown, pubescent, woody, zig zag form, and spreading. They develop a gray color with age.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Meadow
    Slope/Bank
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Drought Tolerant Garden
    Native Garden
    Nighttime Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Design Feature:
    Mass Planting
    Attracts:
    Bees
    Butterflies
    Moths
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Deer
    Drought
    Dry Soil
    Erosion
    Rabbits
    Problems:
    Allelopathic