Winged Sumac

Rhus copallinum

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Illustration of winged sumac leaves, flowers, fruits.
Winged sumac (dwarf sumac; shining sumac) (Rhus copallinum).
Paul Nelson
Other Common Name
Dwarf Sumac; Shining Sumac
Family

Anacardiaceae (cashews)

Description

Winged sumac is a slender-branched shrub to small tree with a rounded top; it forms thickets from root sprouting.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 5–12 inches long, central stem hairy and broadly winged; leaflets 7–17, tip pointed, base ending at a sharp angle, margin usually without teeth; upper surface dark green, shiny; lower surface paler, hairy; broken leaves and leaf stalk bleed a white sticky sap. Leaves turn bright red in fall.

Bark is thick, greenish, brown to gray, some shallow grooves, pores red and prominent.

Twigs are brittle, green to reddish-brown, hairy at first, smooth later, bleed a white sticky sap when broken; pores dark.

Flowers late May–July, both male and female flowers in dense clusters at the end of new growth, on separate plants; clusters 6–8 inches long; flowers numerous, about 1/8 inch across; petals 5, greenish-white.

Fruits September, compact clusters, erect or drooping, persistent; fruit round, flattened, red, hairy, about 1/8 inch wide, 1-seeded.

Similar species: There are four species of sumacs in Missouri.

Size

Height: to 26 feet.

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Photo of a winged sumac compound leaf, showing namesake "wings."
Winged Sumac Leaf
Winged sumac is named for the flat, leafy extensions along the midribs of the compound leaves.

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Photo of a winged sumac plant in flower.
Winged Sumac In Flower
Winged sumac flowers are greenish white, small, and numerous, occuring in clusters 6–8 inches long.

winged_sumac_fall-color_Barn_Hollow_NA_10-14-17.jpg

Photo of winged sumac compound leaves showing wings and red fall color
Winged Sumac Fall Color
In fall, winged sumac paints our landscapes with splashes of brilliant ruby red.

Winged Sumac in Autumn

Brilliant red leaves alternate on a central stem.
Winged sumac in autumn in Elsberry
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in prairies, thickets, open woods, rocky sandstone, chert and igneous glades, borders of woodlands generally in acid soils, old fields, roadsides, and along railroads. Winged sumac makes a desirable ornamental shrub due to its glossy, dark green leaves and brilliant red fall color. Its hardiness and thicket-forming growth make it good for parking lot and highway-median plantings.

image of Winged Sumac Dwarf Sumac Shining Sumac distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

This species is most common south of the Missouri River.

Status

Regarding the name, winged sumac's scientific name is sometimes spelled "Rhus copallina," but the rules for scientific names argue against it. In this case, Carolus Linnaeus, the father of our scientific naming system, himself "discovered" this plant, and he named it "copallinum." The rules require us to use his original spelling. The "copallina" spelling originated when midcentury botanists argued that the Latin word "Rhus" is grammatically feminine and "corrected" Linnaeus’s name to match it. By the way, "copallinum" means "resinous" or "gummy." Perhaps Linnaeus named it for the fruits' resinous waxy or fleshy inner layer, between the fuzzy outer skin and the smooth stone at the center.

Human connections

Winged sumac is growing in popularity as a landscaping shrub. Its brilliant ruby red fall color paints our roadsides in early autumn. The fruits have been crushed and used to flavor drinking water, and the tannin-rich bark has been used in the tanning industry. Native Americans and pioneers had many medicinal uses for this plant.

Ecosystem connections

Many types of birds eat the berries, and deer occasionally browse the berries, stems, and foliage. Shrubby plants provide important cover for all kinds of animals.