Evergreen Sumac

By Rocio Bomberg, Bexar County Master Gardener

“Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours. I want Texas to look like Texas and Vermont to look like Vermont.” Lady Bird Johnson

I have taken what Lady Bird Johnson said to heart and am transforming my landscape so that I have only native plants.

I am experiencing the difference it makes as I am seeing a wide variety of wildlife benefiting from my efforts. I am happy knowing my hard work is making a difference.

Texas has a vast range of climates, soil differences and water availability. Many native trees are growing within each of the Texas Eco-regions, where there is weathering, erosion, and deposition.

I would like to share with you one of my favorite landscape plants which has been underutilized. The Evergreen Sumac ( Rhus virens, and also know as the Tobacco Sumac) is a native to central Texas in the Edwards Plateau and the Trans-Pecos, west to southern Arizona and south into Mexico. It is versatile and can be gown as a tree or used as a hedge, as the tree’s height can reach 8 to 12 feet tall or higher. It can be trained to be a single trunk or if left alone it will be multi-trunked.

If used as a thick shrub/hedge, the Evergreen Sumac will require light pruning to form a natural screen or to screen out an offensive view, complementing your landscape. In the picture above, this sumac provides a natural privacy screen for the house. It survived the snowstorm of February 2021 and the low temperatures that lasted for several days.

Once established, sumacs require low water, have a high drought tolerance, are generally insect and disease free, and prefer dry soil. The sumac also grows well in sandy loam, caliche, and limestone-based soil and can be planted in full sun to part shade. In full sun, the Evergreen Sumac can become bushy, large, and round.

Leaves are alternately 2-5 inches long, shiny on the upper surface and leathery in appearance.  The leaves afford the local gardener many benefits. The tiny white flowers usually appear in clusters during the months of July through August, although this year with the lack of rain. My sumac didn’t bloom until September. If there is significant rain in the spring it may bloom and produce berries. This incredible plant provides nectar for bees and butterflies and is a host plant to the dusky-blue ground streak butterfly.

The female plant produces a red fuzzy fruit that provides food and nourishment for birds and small animals. If you have the patience to collect the berries, they can be soaked in water to make a tasty tart tea that is high in vitamin C.

One drawback: the Evergreen Sumac is a wonderful snack for deer and should be protected when newly planted. However,  it is very resilient and will return!

Plants in general make me very happy but I have to say that every time I see  the Evergreen Sumac that are planted in my landscape, I am truly enchanted.

All photos by author