The Three-Leaf Sumac on Wild About Utah

Aug 12, 2016

Credit Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database

  Many think of the desert as a hot, dry, barren, and unforgiving place. However, Utah’s deserts are chock full of interesting and diverse plants and animals! One such plant, which grows throughout much of Utah, is rhus trilobata or three-leaf sumac. 

Three-leaf sumac is a widespread deciduous shrub in the Rhus genus, meaning “with three leaflets,” or “trifoliate leaves.” Others in this genus include Rhus aromoatica and the infamous western poison oak. The leaves of this shrubby-type plant are toothed, feel stiff and they give off quite a strong scent when crushed. The strong smell of crushed three-leaf sumac leaves has earned it the nickname “skunkbush” as well as “ill-scented sumac.”

Three-leaf sumac is a low spreading, many-branched deciduous shrub, usually no more than 3 feet high but spreading as much as 8 feet wide. The small, trifoliate leaves and the branches are fuzzy. Given its many branches, three-leaf sumac provides both nesting material and structure for native bees. Flowers are yellowish and found in clustered spikes. They are followed by bright crimson to reddish, sticky berries. The fall foliage adds an extra pop of color to the landscape.

Historically, three-leaf sumac has been used for medicinal and other purposes. The bark can be chewed or brewed into a drink for cold symptoms. Flexible branches were traditionally used for twisting into basketry and rugs. In fact, three-leaf sumac was a close contender to willow in desirability for basket-making. This common use of the plant earned it another nickname of “basketbush.”

My favorite part of three-leaf sumac, however, are the slightly hairy and sticky berries. Although historically eaten for gastrointestinal pain and toothache, the berries have a delicious sour flavor and can be eaten plain or used in oatmeal, ice cream, steeped in tea, or soaked in cold water to make a beverage similar to lemonade. These berries are high in vitamin C and have earned three-leaf sumac the additional nicknames of “sourberry” “lemonade bush” and “lemonade berry.” Other nicknames for this multi-purpose plant include squawbush, desert sumac, or scented sumac.

Regardless of which nickname you choose for three-leaf sumac, give the berries a try and see for yourself what you think! Be sure, however, that you properly identify the plant to avoid potential illness that can be caused by misidentification! One great resource that can help is the field guide “Rocky Mountain States: Wild Berries & Fruits.”