Plant This: Evergreen sumac

Is your garden winter-dreary, lacking in greenery after the latest sub-freezing blast? Or is your tired, old red-tip photinia hedge finally succumbing to photinia fungal disease? If so, take a look at evergreen sumac (Rhus virens), a small tree or large shrub native to the drylands of central Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico.

As the photo above illustrates, “evergreen” is a bit of a misnomer. In full sun its leaves turn a burnished red in winter (in shade it remains green). Also, it’s not a true evergreen since, like live oak and Texas persimmon, it drops and immediately replaces its leaves in late winter. Mere technicalities! Evergreen sumac is a fine screening plant, one that provides year-round greenery whether you’re growing it in full sun or shade.

I took the photos above at the Wildflower Center last weekend (late January). The closer view reveals furry, red berries — a late-winter smorgasbord for birds.

This one, peeking between two live oak trunks, is growing in my garden in dappled shade. Lacking bright sunlight, it never blushes coppery red, but that’s OK. When winter’s tans and grays start to feel dull, evergreen sumac is still pleasantly green. I took this photo in early fall (late September), when clusters of creamy white flower buds appeared amid the shiny leaves.

In another week, when the small flowers opened, the shrub was buzzing with eager honeybees. This is an excellent pollinator plant.

Evergreen sumac is native to dry hillsides, so be sure it has good drainage. Rocky soil? No problem. Heavy, clay soil? Hmm. Try it where you have terracing or a slope so that water can drain away during our occasional flooding rains. Plant it throughout the winter, but do remember to water deeply every couple of weeks throughout that first summer to get it established.

Expect evergreen sumac to grow 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. It can be pruned up tree-form to reveal its gray, scaly bark or left shrubby and loose. But keep in mind that it grows quite slowly, so prepare to be patient or buy a larger plant for immediate impact.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

8 Responses

  1. Shirley says:

    Good choice for Plant This. We added two of these great native shrubs along the edge of our woods recently and look forward to seeing them grow up like those you show in the post. Looks like we should add a few in a sunnier spot soon.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Having admired that red tinge on the evergreen sumacs at the Wildflower Center, I’m kind of wishing I had another one in a sunnier spot too, Shirley. —Pam

  2. Bob Pool says:

    I dug up and transplanted about a dozen through the years with only one surviving and am so glad I have it. I dug it up when it was only 6″ high and the roots were already 18″ long. It is now,12 years later, about 30″ tall. Very slow growing so buying one already of good stature would be best. I really like the shiny, reflective leaves when the light is right. It’s a great addition to the garden for sure.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Bob. Slow-growing native plants, as your experience illustrates, are often busily growing an extensive network of roots, which enables them to survive drought. As you say, buying a potted specimen of good size from a local nursery ensures that you can enjoy evergreen sumac without having to wait 20 years! —Pam

  3. Ragna says:

    I love this plant and have several, but none in full sun. Thanks for the photos showing what I’m missing!

    I’d like to reinterate that Evergreen sumacs do not seem to transplant well. On two different occasions I tried to relocate nursery bought plants growing in my yard and both times, in spite of carefully digging out a good root ball and cutting them back, they didn’t make it. So be advised to plant it where it is to stay.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Ragna, I so appreciate your comment. Hearing that your experience matches Bob’s is convincing that evergreen sumacs do not transplant well. Too bad the nursery tags don’t usually mention this kind of detail: plant it and leave it alone! —Pam

  4. Rebecca says:

    Hi Pam,

    My HEB Plus in Kyle has the Evergreen Sumac on clearance. I knew one of my Austin Garden Bloggers would have some information on it. Thanks for the post. Sounds like just what I need. I will be going by HEB today to pick some up.


  5. […] red berries adorn evergreen sumac December 8th, 2014 Every year I renew my fan-club membership for evergreen sumac (Rhus virens), a fine native shrub or small tree. What’s not to love? It sports handsome, […]