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     I used to work for the Ute Mountain Ute Indians in White Mesa, Utah, and I saw the elders there gather the long slender stems of Sumac, peel them with their teeth, and then weave them over other stems to make redolent baskets of many shapes and sizes.  The weavers call this plant "Willow" and when I came out with my botanical knowledge and told them that the plant really is a Sumac called "Rhus aromatica", they shouted out, "Rhoos, shmoos, this is WILLOW"; they continued their weaving.  So much for the importance of names.

     Linnaeus utilized the classical Greek name, "Rhus", when naming this genus in 1753.  John Bartram collected the first specimens of our native species in the Carolinas and the plant was at first named Rhus aromaticum.  From specimens collected by Thomas Nuttall in the early 18th century, the plant was given a name that is still often attached to it, Rhus trilobata.  The presently accepted name, Rhus aromatica, was given by Asa Gray in 1871.

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica.  Synonym: Rhus trilobata.  (Sumac)
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Woodlands, canyons. Spring.
Bill Canyon Trail, Utah, April 1, 2004.

Rubbing the leaves or stems of Rhus aromatica produces a lovely, aromatic pungency. And the plant, although twisting and sprawling, is also visually appealing all year: A myriad of tiny yellow early spring flowers are followed by handsome, light green slightly serrated leaves; then come red lemonade-tasting berries; and finally the brilliance of yellow and red fall leaves. 

Rhus aromatica is tolerant of a wide variety of conditions, growing on rocky canyon hillsides, near streams, and in fairly arid sandy soils.  It grows slowly in the Four Corners area, lives many years, and is commonly six to ten feet high and wide, a bit less in more arid high desert areas.

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica.  Synonym: Rhus trilobata.  (Sumac)
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Woodlands, canyons. Spring.
Lower Dolores River Canyon, April 30 and May 17, 2004.

Following a profusion of tiny, light yellow/green flowers, comes tight clusters of hairy berries with a pleasant tart lemonade taste.  The berries make a refreshing drink for the trail when added to a water bottle.

Rhus aromatica
Rhus aromatica.  Synonym: Rhus trilobata.  (Sumac)
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Woodlands, canyons. Spring.
Near Yellowjacket Canyon, October 5, 2006.

Rhus aromatica is probably the showiest of fall bushes in the Four Corners area.  This photograph shows a bush five feet high and wide.

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica.  Synonym: Rhus trilobata.  (Sumac)
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Woodlands, canyons. Spring.
Near Yellowjacket Canyon, November 1, 2005 and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, April 27, 2010.

Rhus aromatica leaves have lovely colors both in the fall and early spring.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Rhus aromatica