The Three-Lobed Sumacs
Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata) and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) (in the sumac family, Anacardiaceae) are widespread sumacs. If you think smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) when you think of sumac, you may not recognize them. Instead of a large compound leaf with long leaflets on each side, skunkbush and aromatic sumac have smaller, three-lobed, irregularly-shaped leaves. Both plants have characteristic, unpleasant odors (which I’ve never noticed.) That explains the name skunkbush. The “fragrant” in fragrant sumac is a nice way of saying smelly; it is describe as “malodorous.”
Both have other common names: skunkbush is also called three-leaf sumac, which roughly translates the scientific name Rhus trilobata, lemonade plant, and squawbush. Fragrant sumac is variously called aromatic sumac, sweet sumac, lemon sumac and polecatbush.
I found sources that considered skunkbush and fragrant sumac different species, others that said fragrant sumac was a variety of skunkbush, and still others said skunkbush was a variety of fragrant sumac. Puzzled, I looked at DNA studies of their relationships. Skunkbush and aromatic sumac share more genes with each other than with any of the other 130 sumacs. Both skunkbush and fragrant sumac are variable–leaves vary in shape, lobing, and leaf margin, for example. Both are widely distributed, with geographic variation; skunkbush grows across all the western US plus Iowa and Arkansas, aromatic sumac from New England to Texas but not west of the Rocky Mountains. I don’t know if one species or two is right, but the confusion says they are very similar, so I will treat them together. Both are shrubs not usually over six feet tall, with small yellow-green flowers, variable, three-lobed leaves, edible red fruits, and bad-smelling foliage.
The fruits are nutritious and tasty, although flavor varies. Like smooth sumac, the most common use of skunkbush and fragrant sumac is to make a lemonade-like drink by soaking the ripe fruits in water. Cook with sumac-ade anywhere you would use lemon juice. The fruits can be munched raw, although there isn’t much fruit around the seed and they are often very tart. Creative cooks cook the fruits into cornmeal cakes, add them to pudding, and make jam.
The main warning is that, since sumacs are in the same plant family as poison ivy, poison oak, cashews, and mangos, people who react strongly to those plants may react to sumacs. The poison oaks have white fruits, the sumacs red fruits. Be careful identifying the plants when no fruits are present, since in some places poison oak leaves look a bit like lobe-leaf sumac leaves.
All across North America, going back into prehistoric times, Native Americans, made extensive use of skunkbush and aromatic sumac. Ancestral Puebloan sites from Colorado to Arizona have lots of skunkbush seeds. Elsewhere the archaeological record is spottier, but probably both were used wherever they grew, since they were used by tribes all over the continent in recent times. Fruits were pounded to be used in soup, porridge, or jam, steeped for drinks, and dried for future use.
Native Americans used skunkbush and fragrant sumac to treat colds, as emetics, to calm the stomach, to improve appetite, and more. They were important plants. Current herbals focus on smooth sumac, though aromatic sumac has received some attention. Modern studies find sumacs generally are rich in anti-cancer, antibiotic, and anti-inflammation compounds. They have considerable medical potential, but have not been studied much.
Skunkbush was a preferred plant for construction. The twigs and splits, flexible and strong, were woven into baskets, snowshoes, hats, cradles, and sunshades. The sticks made arrow shafts and points, weaving tools, scrapers, digging sticks and more. There is a very cute split twig animal constructed of skunkbush, dated at 3,500 years ago. Normally, skunkbush branches are short and not very straight, but after damage, they regrow longer and straighter. The branch used in the split twig animal suggests people 3,500 years ago knew that, and burned skunkbush for the more useful shoots when it regrew.
Grazers avoid the leaves (perhaps that bad smell is a good thing), but birds and small animals depend on the red fruits. Skunkbush and aromatic sumac are important foods for numerous native butterflies; native bees use them for nest material.
The sumacs produce a variety of dye colors, browns from the tannins, and, with other plants and different processes, blue, red-brown, and pinkish tan. They are also used as mordants, facilitating other dyes.
The lobe-leafed sumacs are pretty, small shrubs, suitable for gardens, useful and wildlife friendly.
For more about different kinds of sumac, read this article, also by Kathy Keeler
As a former Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kathy Keeler’s specialties range from ant-plant interactions to grass genetics to studies of prairie plants. Retired, she now pursues travel and history, endlessly fascinated by different places and times. And, wherever Kathy goes, she is irresistibly drawn to plants.
On this website and on her blog you can gain a deeper enjoyment of the natural world and discover information about plants that will delight and enchant you.
Bohrer, V. L. New life from ashes: the tale of the burnt bush (Rhus trilobata). Desert Plants 5(3): 122-124. 1983. https://repository.arizona.edu/bitstream/handle/10150/552214/ dp_05_03-122-124.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y See the split-twig animal.
Cardon, D. Natural Dyes. Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. Archetype Publications, London. 2007.
Dunmire, W.W. and G. D. Tierney. Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, NM. 1997.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR. Online: See details of Native American uses.
Morgan, L. B. 2013. Foraging the Rocky Mountains. Falcon Guides, Guilford, CT
Seebeck, C.B. 1998. Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies. Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, CO.
Yi, Ti, A. J. Miller, and J. Wen. Phylogeny of Rhus (Anacardiaceae) based on sequences of nuclear Nia-i3 intron and chloroplast TrnC-trnD Systematic Botany. 32(2) : 379-391. 2007.
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