Wyoming Fall Colors Include Rhus

Rhus trilobata in the Wyoming FallThe fall colors of Wyoming are subtle, not like the brilliantly brushed hardwood forests of the eastern US.  The shades of autumn in the Rockies are more muted with the dark olive evergreens,  purple-grey slates, and reddish sandstones providing the back drop for pockets of glowing aspen and roadside ribbons of burning rabbitbrush.

The fall season is when the common Rhus trilobata demands attention.  The rest of the year, it is faithful, but nondescript.  Its fall colors range from burnt umber to mahogany to scarlet. It weaves itself along the foothill drainages and gullies. I’ve seen it  a single foot tall and wide and in large patches twelve feet in diameter, but it’s usually less than five feet high.  It likes gravelly and sandy soil and thinks nothing of sub zero temperatures and hurricane force winds.

In my opinion Rhus is one of the most promising local native shrubs for landscape use

Rhus trilobata produces tart little drupes said to have been used by Native Americans and early pioneers to make a lemonade-like drink. If you’ve ever tasted one of these little ‘berries’ it’s hard to imagine drinking much of this lemonade, but it’s easy to imagine the ‘berries’ being used in pemmican or thrown into stews and soups.

Rhus is becoming easier to find in nurseries, but it’s still not what I would consider common. I plan on planting two of these shrubs out on my impossible corner which is really more like a sand dune moving toward the middle of the yard. But if I know Rhus trilobata, it’ll feel right at  home.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s always nice to hear about a familiar plant growing far from home. We have Rhus trilobata in central Texas, too, and sometimes it turns pretty colors in the fall. More striking, though, and more reliably colorful in the fall here, is Rhus lanceolata, prairie flameleaf sumac. I’ve even had sumac-ade made from it, and it was good.

    Steve Schwartzman

    1. wyominglife says:

      Well Steve you got me going on a rabbit trail with your mention of sumac-ade! I’ve tasted the Rhus trilobata berries and I can only imagine how much sugar a person would have to add to make it palatable. I got to thinking about the “poison sumac” bush in my childhood back yard in Indiana, and the thought of making sumac-ade out of that really got my attention!

      It turns out the “poison sumac” (Rhus vernix) of my childhood, which I so diligently avoided, wasn’t poison sumac after all, although it does grow in Indiana. If my memory serves my right, it was Rhus typhina, or Staghorn sumac. To make matters even more confusing, there is a “False poison sumac” Rhus michauxii, but not too confusing as it only grows in the lower southeast US. I have posted some identifying photos from the USDA-ARCS Plants database, but there is no R. lanceolata image. You might consider uploading one if you have it.

      1. I plan to have several Rhus pictures in my blog later this month or in early December, when we get whatever fall color the drought will bring us this year. Even if this year’s color isn’t up to par, I’ll post pictures from 2009 or 2010, when the sumacs were wonderful.

        Unfortunately the most widespread member of the sumac group that we have in central Texas is poison ivy. I often have to avoid it, but on the plus side it can sometimes turn pretty colors like its relatives.

        As for the sumac-ade, a member of the local Native Plant Society made it, and I don’t know how much sugar she used to balance the tartness of the fruit. I’ll try to remember to ask her the next time I see her.

      2. wyominglife says:

        What is the drought status in Texas now? I know how discouraging drought can be. We went through seven drought years here in Wyoming. Then she broke with gusto with record breaking snow packs and high spring rains.

      3. We’ve had only one real rainfall in Austin in the last four (I think) months. We’re something like 25 inches below normal for the year. It’s bad.

      4. wyominglife says:

        Sorry to hear that. I know many in Texas are buying their hay up here. I once read somewhere that one of the hardest things about farming is that when it’s going well for you, it’s probably going bad for your neighbor.

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