This tale is an update from an original published by Loret T. Setters on August 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
I heard a loud drone while walking out back. I glanced over to an area I have let restore that consists of a patch of Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum). There, covering the creamy white blossoms was a gang of pollinators of many shapes and sizes. There were solitary bees, honeybees, flies, ants and many Thread-waisted Wasps (Sphex spp.).
Winged Sumac gets its common name from the protrusions along the leaf stems that resemble wings.
Winged Sumac holds a place in my heart since it offers a bit of autumn coloring that I miss from my Northeast U.S. roots. The green leaves turn vibrant shades of red, gold and orange as the season changes.
This deciduous shrub is propagated by seed or by root cuttings. It spreads by runners forming clumps which needs to be a consideration in landscape locations. “Use in large settings or in areas being restored.”
Plants are dioecious so only the female plants produce berries that are eaten by grouse, wild turkey, and songbirds.
Rabbits eat the bark and twigs, especially during the winter months. The twigs are also browsed extensively by white-tailed deer during the winter months when other more desirable browse is scarce. This plant is listed as having special value to native bees, special value to honeybees, and is a major player in supporting conservation biological control, which is evident by just how many of the Thread-Waisted Wasps were gathered in my garden. These wasps are parasites of crickets and katydids.
Winged Sumac has a history of ethnobotanical uses one of which is to treat dysentery. Native Americans also used the fruits as a dye. When I experimented and made a dye from the berries, the cloth came out a light shade of gold, which seemed contrary to the redness of the fruits. Nevertheless, the color was stunning. The fruits can be processed into jelly and also be used as a base for a lemonade flavored beverage.
In Florida, R. copallinum is listed as a larval host for the Luna Moth (Actias luna) and Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis), although I’ve yet to experience this wildlife benefit. It is a larval host for the Redbanded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) and the numbers of this butterfly in my garden certainly speaks for it being so. BUT, don’t look for the larva on the tree itself because it is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus (leaf litter) as larval food. Another reason to not be overly neat in the garden. Leave those leaves.
Given all the benefit a sumac can provide to a wildlife garden, you certainly should investigate which species would work in your area of the country. Is Flame Leaf Prairie Sumac (R. lanceolata) right for you garden? or would Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina) be a better fit. No matter what your choice, this plant should be a priority in your wildlife gardening mecca. The pollinators will thank you for it.