By Jake Landers
Published January 2012
It really doesn’t smell as bad as you might think from its name. Another name for it is Perfume Bush. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then fragrance is in the nose of the smeller. After all, the faint odor of a skunk is pleasing to some people. The odor of Skunkbush to me is tolerable, not perfumy, and distinct enough to identify on a dark night or blindfolded when you smell a crushed leaf.
Skunkbush is also called Skunkbush Sumac which relates it to other members of the Sumac family. These include Flameleaf, Evergreen, Littleleaf, etc., but its leaves look more like Poison Oak. They are in clusters of three, usually smaller than its poisonous cousin’s and a little less pointy. Its berries are deep red-orange and fuzzy, maybe a dozen in a cluster at the tip of the branch, but you don’t see them every year. (Poison oak has white berries.) They have a sour lemon taste, similar to the Flameleaf Sumac, either of which could flavor a good lemonade drink, that is, if you don’t have to prepare it for a large thirsty crowd. Skunkbush berries are usually too scarce for more than a thimbleful.
The importance of Skunkbush in Texas is the browse that it provides for deer and goats. It has been killed out of heavily stocked goat pastures. Where it is most common is in the protected edge of a Shinoak thicket and in roadsides and park areas protected from livestock. It spreads out with slow growing sprouts much too slowly to break even with the losses from heavy browsing. Quality is high throughout the summer. It has probably started increasing in those areas of the hill country, once traditional sheep and goat raising rangeland, now given up to coyotes and cattle, but it will remain rare for a long time.
Other names include Polecat bush, Fragrant sumac, Sweet-scented sumac, Lemon sumac and the scientific name Rhus aromatica. A newer scientific name is Rhus trilobata. To add to the scientific confusion there are two named varieties in Texas, var. flabelliformis and var. pilosissima, based on the shape and hairiness of the leaves. I wonder if they smell the same.
Reading The Landscape
Winter scene along U.S. Highway 83 in Menard County, Texas. What trees are present, what is the red grass in the background, and what is the condition of the pasture? Click here for my answer.
Tiny white flower appear in the spring ahead of the leaves. The fuzzy berries mature early in the summer and quickly disappear with use by wildlife. The leaves turn colors of red and yellow in the fall but not as striking as the more impressive Flameleaf sumac.
Delena Tull, in “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest,” reports that Native Americans used limber branches of Skunkbush to make baskets, and the way to get long flexible shoots was to collect the sprouts after a wildfire. She also writes that the Sumacs in general have many medicinal qualities, were once important in tanning leather and dyeing cloth, and that some cause dermatitis when handled by some people.
Skunkbush can be found from Texas to Canada and east to New England and Florida. Its wide distribution, shrubby habit without thorns, attractive berries and fall colors, and its aromatic foliage, make it an attractive native plant for landscaping according to Sally Wasowski. If you are interested in growing it on your own, some good hints on seed germination are provided by Jill Nokes in “How to Grow Native Plants”—acid scarify for 30-50 minutes, then stratify immediately for 30-60 days at 41 degrees F. Maybe it could become as popular in landscaping as other natives such as Cenizo and Autumn Sage.
The scene is a well managed pasture with Live oak, Mesquite and Pricklypear having been controlled on this deep soil, with a Little Bluestem colony in the background, suggesting light grazing through the summer. —JL