The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

Fragrant Sumac

Common Name
Fragrant Sumac (Squaw-bush)


Scientific Name
Rhus aromatica Aiton


Plant Family
Sumac (Anacardiaceae)

Garden Location
Open Wood


Prime Season
Early Summer flowering to late Autumn fruit



Fragrant Sumac is a bushy perennial shrub, growing up to 7 feet high but 10 foot is attainable Thickets are formed from the suckering roots.

The bark can be covered with dense fine hair and a few small raised spots. New growth is green, older twigs and stems are brown. Twigs form a zigzag pattern. Buds have darker brown coloration and are hairy.

Leaves: Unlike the other two sumacs in the Garden, the leaves of Fragrant Sumac are alternate and divided into 3 mostly stalkless leaflets that are slightly aromatic when crushed, as are the stems. The leaflets are coarsely toothed and can have a variable shape but are mostly wedge shaped at the base, green to blue-green in summer and orange to red to purple in the Autumn. Both the upper and lower surfaces of young leaves have fine hair.

Inflorescence: Plants are polygamodioecious, that is they can carry separate unisexual and bisexual flowers on the same plant. The unisexual male flowers (staminate - sterile) are in yellowish catkins at the tips of branches and appear in summer and remain over winter. The unisexual female (pistillate - fertile) flowers are in a tight cluster that grows near the ends of prior year branches; flowers open right after the leaves open in central MN.

Flowers: Individual flowers are small (about 1/8 inch wide), bright yellow with a bell shaped hypanthium, 5 spatula shaped petals that have rounded tips, a light greenish-yellow calyx with 5 pointed lobes which are united at their base, much shorter than the petals, and the entire flower on a short stalk. The inside of the corolla throat is hairy. The staminate (sterile) flowers have 5 stamens placed alternate with the 5 petals. The filaments are yellowish green, the anthers yellow, oblong, with 2 cells. The sterile flowers have a smaller but imperfect ovary. The pistillate flowers have a larger ovoid 1-celled ovary with 3 short styles. Fertile flowers usually show stamens that are functionally sterile and shorter than those in the staminate flowers.

Fruit: At maturity the flowers produce a bright red, up to 1/4 inch diameter, densely hairy drupe containing a single smooth reddish-brown oval to bean shaped nutlet. These fruits provide winter food for Wild Turkey, grouse, wintering birds, and active small mammals. The foliage is not very palatable for most animals.


Habitat: As the plant usually does not grow as high as the other sumacs it can be used as a high ground cover, although as noted in the first paragraph, older specimens can exceed "high ground cover" expectations. It tolerates both sun and open shade and is found in the open woods and prefers mesic to dry moisture conditions. Like the other sumacs, fire will generate vigorous growth. Roots will frequently send up suckers. It can be propagated from root cuttings and cultivars are available from the nursery trade. It is not native to Minnesota but grows well in the central and southern part of the state.

Names: The genus Rhus, is derived from the old Greek name for Sumac - rhous. The species name, aromatica, refers to the aromatic leaves. The author name of the plant classification,‘Aiton’ refers to William Aiton (1731-1793), Scottish botanist, who succeeded Philip Miller as superintendent of the Chelsea Physic Garden and then became director of Kew Gardens, where he published Hortus Kewensis, the Garden’s catalogue of plants in 1789.

Comparison: There are three sumacs in the Garden - Compare: Smooth Sumac, Staghorn Sumac. The individual drupes look similar but the leaves and flower clusters are quite different.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.


Above: The small flowers occur in a small tight cluster on prior year stems. The inside of the corolla is hairy and the yellow-green calyx has 5 pointed lobes. Each flower has a short stalk. The flowers in the photos are functionally staminate (sterile) The anthers are present but the ovary is imperfect.

Below: 1st photo - Buds have darker colored scales, mostly hairy. There is fine hair on the twig. Terminal bud shown. 2nd photo - Occupying most of the space within the drupe is a single hard nutlet.

Bud seeds

Below: The densely hairy bright red drupes that mature in mid to late summer.


Below: 1st photo - The 3-part leaflet with coarse teeth. All surfaces are hairy on young leaves. 2nd photo - Fall leaf color.

Fragrant Sumac fall leaf color

Below: Twigs form a zigzag, are brown with small raised spots, and have fine hair.


Below: The compound leaf with numerous alternate leaves on the stem.

full leaf

Below: The roots of Fragrant Sumac frequently send up suckers and form thickets.


Below: A terminal cluster of functionally staminate flowers.

perfect flowers in cluster


Notes: Fragrant Sumac is native to the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada. In Minnesota plants grow well in the central and southern part of the state but any found have been planted as it is not considered native. It was introduced to the Garden by Eloise Butler in 1911 with plants brought in from Gillett's Nursery, Southwick MA. There is reported native lore on the use of the drupes and the bark for various medicinal purposes, for tanning and for smoking.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.