As I write this post, daytime highs are in the 100°F+ range and most flowers if even open
are looking ragged as they dehydrate while in the bud stage. The most interesting activity in my garden isn’t flowers in the summer but wildlife. Recently I’ve been watching the quail scurry all over my yard. I’ve even had a friend tell me I have the most quail she has ever seen. Could it be something about the plants I’ve selected for my garden? They seem to like the skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) I planted in several random locations.
Skunkbush flowers in the early spring and they are not very showy so I did not plant this for it floral display. Instead, I planted it for the greenery it would provide in summer and its extreme drought tolerance. Of all my plants, it looks like it is suffering the least from these 100°F+ temperatures. Besides the summer greenery, this shrub also can be quite colorful in fall when its foliage turns various shades of yellow, pink, red and orange. In my yard, I have one that seems to turn pink and the other yellow.
What I did not expected, but have since found in the literature and observed in my yard, is
that quail love skunkbush sumac. The literature on habitat favorable to quail indicates that skunkbush sumac provide both cover and food for quail.
Many people will think poisonous when they hear or see the word sumac but not all sumacs are poisonous. In fact, the berries of skunkbush sumac have been used to make a refreshing “lemonade flavored” drink. However in my yard, the quail get these berries and instead I get to watch adult quail with their young scurrying about under the sumac and occasionally an adult flies up into the foliage to snatch some berries. What berries I do get to see are also quite ornamental.
Small clusters of small clusters of minute, light green flowers at the tips of most of the
twigs precede the appearance of the red berries. Small butterflies are attracted to these clusters of flowers in early spring.
By fall, most of the berries are gone. That is when the leaves turn lovely shades of gold, orange, pink, and red.
A good location for this shrub is the edge of your property or on slopes that are hard to maintain. It can also be a part of a screen or windbreak. Individual plants will grow to a height of 8′ and a diameter of 8′. It needs water for establishment but once its roots go deep enough it will survive infrequent watering. Since flowering occurs at the tips of twigs, pruning reduces the display of berries so lightly prune by thinning out crossed branches. If watching birds and butterflies that frequent this shrub, be sure to plant it where it is visible from a window.
There are several names for skunkbush sumac, including basket bush, squawbush, and three-leaf sumac. In the wild, this shrub grows under a wide range of conditions from stream banks to dry rocky slopes. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions as well from highly alkaline to acidic soils.
There are six varieties naturally occurring varieties of Rhus trilobata; anisophylla, pilosissima, quinata, racemuolosa, simplicifolia, and trilobata. Distinguishing features between these varieties are leaf size, berry pubescence, and plant height. Additionally, Rhus aromatica, a close cousin of Rhus trilobata is available to gardeners. The only readily apparent difference between these two species is Rhus aromatica’s leave have a nice aroma when crushed leaves and Rhus trilobata’s crushed leave have an unpleasant order. Unless you plan to crush the leaves, Skunkbush Sumac is an excellent plant for windbreaks, wildlife, and low maintenance. The other big difference between Rhus trilobata and Rhus aromatica is the geographic range over which these two species occur. Rhus trilobata is native to the western United States and Rhus aromatica is native to the east United States. Expect Rhus trilobata to tolerate dryer conditions than Rhus aromatica.