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Evergreen Sumac

Evergreen Sumac - Rhus virens
Location: Southwest side of the Instructional Service Center (ISC). (Map)

The Evergreen Sumac, like the Live Oaks, is not really an evergreen, but it retains its leaves through the winter and then drops and replaces them with new leaves in a matter of days. The foliage does change from green to maroon or red at first frost. The name Rhus is from a Greek word for sumac, and the specific epithet virens means green in Latin. The name Rhus sempervirens is an older name in which the specific epithet sempervirens means always green. This plant is in the Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family) which includes some 600 species of shrubs, trees and lianas that are mainly tropical or sub-tropical. Some of the best-known members of the family are cashews, pistachios, mangos and poison ivy (Rhus radicans).

The leaves of Rhus virens are pinnately-compound with 5 to 9 leaflets that are opposite along the rachis with a single terminal leaflet. Leaves are arranged alternately along the stem. The upper surface of the leaf is a glossy green with a duller green on the lower surface. The small white five-petal flowers are arranged in terminal clusters on the floral stalk. Flowers that appear in late summer or fall have a faint scent of honey that attracts bees and butterflies. The fruits are hairy orange-red drupes that remain on the trees where they provide food for wildlife. The fruit has a tart taste and is rich in Vitamin C. A beverage can be made by soaking the fruit in water and then straining it.

Rhus virens is a very drought-tolerant plant that grows on thin well-drained soils in its native habitat. It will grow in better soils if it is not over-watered. In rich soils it grows rapidly and may tend to sprawl. It is considered a large shrub or small tree that normally grows to a height of 8 to 10 feet with about the same spread. Its natural range is west from Central Texas through New Mexico and Arizona and south into northern Mexico. In many parts of the western states, Rhus virens is replaced by Rhus choriophylla (New Mexico Evergreen Sumac). Some authorities consider R. choriophylla a variant of R. virens, not a different species. Evergreen Sumac is cold-hardy; it can survive temperatures as low as 5 to 10 degrees.

Propagation is done mostly by seeds. Seed germination is helped by scarification and stratification, but fresh seeds can be planted. Untreated seeds do have a lower germination rate. Cuttings can be used, but the results are less successful than seed propagation.

Rhus virens is an excellent plant in a landscape for year-round, beauty whether it is used as a screen or as a single specimen. The butterflies on the flowers and the birds feeding on the autumn fruit are an added bonus.

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